Act now to save migratory birds, say researchers


A new peer-reviewed study by scientists from the RSPB and British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) argues that we must act now to stop the long-term declines of birds that migrate between Europe and Africa.

After decades of research into the causes of population declines, our understanding remains incomplete due to the complexities of studying species on an inter-continental scale throughout the year, and this is delaying conservation action.

Ongoing declines in species such as European Turtle Dove are a warning that time is running out to save the UK's migratory bird species (John Richardson).

The authors call for the focus to shift from research to practical conservation measures now, using the knowledge acquired through research so far. Continued declines of familiar species including European Turtle Dove, Common Cuckoo, Common Swift are evidence that time is running out.

The new study, published in Ibis, calls for action to improve wintering and breeding habitats across Europe and Africa. Such intervention is likely to make the biggest difference for the greatest number of species, it says. Examples include planting and conserving native trees in those regions of Africa that hold wintering migrants, targeted measures at significant stopover locations on migration routes, and protecting some species from hunting along the full course of their migration routes.

As a group, birds that leave Europe after the breeding season to spend the winter in Africa have seen their numbers drop by more than 25% since 1980, with many species experiencing significantly worse declines. The reasons why remain unclear, in part because the birds cover huge distances, are dependent on different sites at different times of year, and occupy vast wintering ranges. These factors make it challenging to identify the pressures faced by individual species and to establish whether poor levels of breeding success or low adult survival rates are to blame for the declines.

Much has been learnt about the migration route of Common Cuckoo in recent years, but numbers continue to decline in many areas (Ian Chivers).

The last few years have seen huge advances in migrant research, and a lot has been learnt since the last review in 2014. New tracking technologies have provided further information on the migratory behaviour and routes of migrant birds, but we still don't understand what is driving the declines of most of these species. Although there have been significant advances in priority research areas, these have not led to new conservation approaches.

The time has come to begin putting what we know into practice, argues the new study. If we wait until our understanding of these birds' declines is complete, it may already be too late.

Professor Juliet Vickery, BTO chief executive and lead author on the paper, said: "Our declining migrant birds need action. Although it remains important to continue some diagnostic research, particularly tagging and tracking birds, resources need to be focused on trialling solutions based on what we know already.

"This is not just about the conservation of individual species but the preservation of a spectacular phenomenon that has inspired humans for generations. We must afford a higher priority to addressing the declines of widespread and relatively common birds, not least because these carry a stronger warning about the health of our natural world than is the case for of rare and threatened species."

Dr John Mallord, RSPB senior conservation scientist, added: "Although we have learnt a lot about migrant birds in the past seven years, we are still no closer to understanding what is driving the declines of most of these species. We need to shift the focus from species-specific diagnostic research and start to use what we do already know to inform conservation actions on the ground."



Vickery, J A, Mallord, J W, & 12 others. 2023. The conservation of Afro-Palaearctic migrants: What we are learning and what we need to know? IBIS. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/ibi.13171