Swallows, swifts, and house martins, once common sights over UK towns and cities, are becoming increasingly rare, according to the latest Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) report.

Over the past decade, populations of these insect-eating birds have plummeted by 40% or more.

The primary cause of this decline is the reduction in insect populations, leaving these birds and their chicks with less food. Additionally, modern renovations of old houses have eliminated many nesting sites, as gaps in roofs and eaves disappear.

Farmland and woodland birds are also facing significant declines. The turtle dove, once prevalent on agricultural land, has seen a 97% reduction in numbers since 1995, making it so rare that experts can no longer effectively monitor it.

Other farmland birds, including the grey partridge, lapwing, and curlew, have also seen their populations at least halve over the same period.

“Along with aerial insectivores, several other groups have experienced sustained long-term declines,” researchers wrote in the report, which produced population trends for 119 species. In total, 42 species are in decline.

Overall, 42 species are in decline, as documented by the BBS, one of the UK’s longest-running citizen science projects. The survey relies on nearly 9,000 enthusiasts, with 100 people having submitted records consistently over its 30-year history.

Common terns experienced a significant decline between 2022 and 2023, largely due to avian flu. Other insect-eating birds, such as the spotted flycatcher and pied flycatcher, have declined by 68% and 59%, respectively, over the past 30 years.

Dr James Heywood, a BBS national organiser, said: “The report highlights declines in wide-ranging groups of species, from birds reliant on insects, farmland and woodland birds, as well as pointing to additional and acute challenges like avian flu.”

However, there is some good news. Species like the goldfinch, great spotted woodpecker, and nuthatch are thriving. Red kites have been a major success story, with their numbers increasing by 2,200% since the survey began. Little egrets, which are making a comeback in the UK, have seen a 2,300% increase.

Interestingly, a fifth of the 35 species showing increases are non-native birds, including the ring-necked parakeet and Egyptian goose.

The BBS is a partnership project involving the British Trust for Ornithology, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

Simon Wotton from the RSPB said: “By looking at this valuable long-term data we can see which species most need our help and where our efforts are best spent when addressing the nature and climate emergency. The changes in range and abundance of some of our bird species should give us cause for concern, and impetus for action.”



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