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Big birds lose out in a crowded world

Posted on 11. July, 2011.

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One of the world’s largest species of bird is on the brink of extinction according to the 2011 IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List for birds, recently released by BirdLife International.

The Great Indian Bustard (pictured above) has been uplisted to Critically Endangered, the highest level of threat. Hunting, disturbance, habitat loss and fragmentation have all conspired to reduce this species to perhaps as few as 250 individuals. Standing one metre in height and weighing in at nearly 15 kg, the Great Indian Bustard was once widespread across the grasslands of India and Pakistan but is now restricted to small and isolated fragments of remaining habitat.

“In an ever more crowded world, species that need lots of space, such as the Great Indian Bustard, are losing out,” says Dr Leon Bennun, BirdLife’s Director of Science and Policy.

This year’s update brings the total number of threatened bird species to 1,253, an alarming 12% of the world total. “Birds provide a window on the rest of nature. They are very useful indicators of ecosystem health: if they are faring badly, then so is wildlife more generally,” says Dr Stuart Butchart, BirdLife’s Global Research and Indicators Coordinator.

Another species newly listed as Critically Endangered is the Bahama Oriole. Recent survey work suggests its population could be as low as 180 individuals. The orioles live in mature woodland, and nest in coconut palms. Lethal yellowing disease of these palms has wiped out nesting trees in areas where the oriole was previously common but is now absent. However, apart from losing nesting habitat, the oriole is also threatened by the recent arrival of the Shiny, a brood parasite that lays its eggs in other species’ nests.

Although the situation appears bleak for many species, this year’s update does highlight several species where targeted conservation work has improved their fortunes. For example, the Campbell Island Teal has benefitted from a massive programme to eradicate rats, plus captive-breeding of remaining individuals. The species has now returned to New Zealand’s Campbell Island and the majority of birds are now thriving, resulting in a reclassification of the threat status to Endangered.

Campbell Island Teal

In picture: Cambell Island Teal. Photo courtesy of Stomac.

Three species of Atlantic island pigeon are also benefitting from conservation. The Madeira, White-tailed and Dark-tailed Laurel Pigeon, native to Madeira and the Canary Islands, have all been classified at lower threat levels now that risks such as habitat loss and hunting are being addressed.

“In the space of a year another 13 bird species have moved into the threatened categories,” says Jean-Christophe Vié, Deputy Director, IUCN Global Species Programme. “This is a disturbing trend; however the figure would be much worse if conservation initiatives were not in place.  The information collected by the BirdLife Partnership is crucial in helping us to continue improving conservation efforts. This is now more important than ever as the biodiversity crisis is already affecting our wellbeing and will continue to do so unless we do more to stop it.”

Main photo: Great Indian Bustard. From a painting in 'Illustrations of Indian Zoology' by Major Gen Hardwicke.