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Red List update: Puffins, vultures, and shorebirds face higher extinction risk

White-headed Vulture. Photo by Andy and Gill Swash

Worldwide, 40 more bird species have a higher risk of extinction, according to the newly published 2015 Red List of Threatened Species. They include six of Africa’s 11 vulture species, eight shorebird species, Helmeted Hornbill, Swift Parrot, Atlantic Puffin, and European Turtle-Dove.

Overall, about 13 percent of all birds are listed as vulnerable to extinction.

The main causes of the drop in African vulture populations are indiscriminate poisonings, where the birds are drawn to poisoned baits; the use of vulture body parts in traditional medicine; and deliberate targeting by poachers, as the birds’ presence can alert authorities to illegally killed big-game carcasses.

“As well as robbing the African skies of one of their most iconic and spectacular groups of birds, the rapid decline of the continent’s vultures has profound consequences for its people — as vultures help stop the spread of diseases by cleaning up rotting carcasses,” said Julius Arinaitwe, director of BirdLife International’s Africa Programme.

The listings of Hooded, White-backed, and Rüppell’s Vultures were changed from Endangered to Critically Endangered. White-headed Vulture advanced from Vulnerable to Critically Endangered, and Cape and Lappet-faced Vultures went from Vulnerable to Endangered.


Other species whose fortunes are worsening:

Helmeted Hornbill
Helmeted Hornbill. Photo by Muhammad Alzahri

Helmeted Hornbill
This southeast Asian species is targeted by hunters for its feathers and for its solid “ivory” casque, which is used to produce handicrafts and traded with China. Recent reports suggest that it’s being traded on a large scale, prompting BirdLife to upgrade it from Near Threatened to Critically Endangered.

Swift Parrot
The introduction of the sugar glider, a small possum, in the Swift Parrot’s breeding areas on the island of Tasmania has become a severe threat. Habitat loss in Tasmania and the wintering range in Australia are also factors in its status change from Endangered to Critically Endangered.

Chestnut-capped Piha
Fewer than 250 individuals of this songbird survive in a few fragmented forests on the northern slope of Colombia’s Central Andes. Continued forest degradation and clearance for construction, agriculture, and commercial plantations in the region are having profound and long-term environmental impacts on the species. It has also been upgraded from Endangered to Critically Endangered.

Far Eastern Curlew. Photo by Li Zai
Far Eastern Curlew. Photo by Li Zai

Great Knot and Far Eastern Curlew
The shorebird species are under intense pressure from the loss of intertidal stopover habitat in the Yellow Sea region of East Asia. Up to 65 percent of intertidal habitat in the Yellow Sea has been lost over the past 50 years, and the remaining habitat is currently disappearing at a rate of more than 1 percent annually. Both birds have been upgraded from Vulnerable to Endangered.


Bar-tailed Godwit, Red Knot, and Curlew Sandpiper
These shorebirds have seen their status raised from Least Concern to Near Threatened due to development in the Yellow Sea, among other regions of the world.

European Turtle-Dove
Formerly a familiar summer visitor in much of western Eurasia and North Africa, this dove has declined by more than 30 percent over the past 16 years. And its range has contracted strongly, especially in northern Europe. The declines are due to habitat change, agricultural intensification, illegal killing, legal hunting, and possibly disease. Its status has changed from Least Concern to Vulnerable.

Horned Grebe
This waterbird breeds from Alaska to the Dakotas and in northern Europe and Asia. A large and significant population decrease in North America has triggered its status change from Least Concern to Vulnerable. The bird has also declined recently in Europe, where it’s known as Slavonian Grebe.

Atlantic Puffin. Photo by Doug Walsh
Atlantic Puffin. Photo by Doug Walsh

Atlantic Puffin
The global population of this iconic seabird is concentrated in Europe and numbers in the millions. However, breeding failures at key colonies over recent years have been high; depleted fish stocks may be to blame. Large declines have been reported in Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and Norway, which together hold 80 percent of the European population. The species has been upgraded from Least Concern to Vulnerable.

Remarkable recoveries

Seychelles Warbler. Photo by Martijn Hammers
Seychelles Warbler. Photo by Martijn Hammers

Not all of the Red List changes are bad news for birds. BirdLife downgraded 23 species to lower threat categories, including:

Seychelles Warbler
This songbird was present on a number of Seychelles islands until human disturbance reduced it to a single population of just 26 birds on tiny Cousin Island in 1968. Intensive conservation management, such as the clearance of coconut plantations, which allowed the warbler’s habitat to regenerate, and translocations to four other Seychelles islands, has boosted numbers to 2,800 individuals. Conservationists expect it to rise to a capacity of around 7,000 birds in the near future. As a result, the species has been downlisted from Vulnerable to Near Threatened.

Audouin’s Gull
The protection of breeding colonies in the Ebro Delta in northeastern Spain has helped this species recover from 1,000 pairs in 1975 to more than 20,000 pairs today. Its status has improved from Near Threatened to Least Concern.


Chatham Petrel
This seabird breeds only in the remote Chatham Islands, about 400 miles southeast of New Zealand. Its numbers fell due to introduced cats and rats on its breeding islands and competition for nest sites from the common Broad-billed Prion. In 1995 the population stood at a low of 600-800 birds. Since then, the installation of burrow flaps that allow the petrels access to their nest sites but exclude prions, and the translocation of petrels to two predator-free islands, has helped the population grow to about 1,000 birds. The species has been downlisted from Endangered to Vulnerable.

Further updates to the Red List are expected in mid-November.  — Matt Mendenhall, Managing Editor

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