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Fresh hope to stem serious decline of threatened bird

Last modified: 24 April 2014

Male ring ouzel, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland

Male ring ouzel in Cairngorms National Park

Image: Andy Hay

RSPB Scotland scientists have uncovered new evidence that could help to halt the dramatic decline of a rare upland bird.

Scotland’s population of ring ouzels – popularly known as mountain blackbirds - has dropped by 36% since 1999 and these striking birds are vanishing from many of their former haunts in the rocky hillsides and gullies of the highest parts of the country.

As the elusive birds begin to return to breed in the uplands from wintering in the mountains of North Africa, a long-running project in the Cairngorms has shone new light on the mystery of their disappearance and offered fresh hope for giving them a home.

Intensive research at Glen Clunie in Aberdeenshire has suggested that the decline there is likely to have been caused by a drop in the survival of young birds in their first year.

It is thought that the low survival rate could be influenced by a lack of suitable habitat. Ring ouzels are known to forage for invertebrates in short grass and a mix of grass and heather early in the summer, before switching their diet to blaeberry and rowan berries later on. They also need access to deeper vegetation, such as heather, to hide their nests and newly-fledged young.

Scientists now hope that creating suitable habitats at breeding grounds could help to attract the birds with safe nest sites and abundant foraging areas, as well as concealing young birds from predators.

RSPB Scotland scientist Innes Sim has been studying the ring ouzel since 1998.

He said: "The widespread disappearance of this stunning mountain bird is deeply worrying.

“Through our long-term studies in Glen Clunie we have identified that improving first-year survival may be the key to stabilising, and eventually reversing, the population decline.

“Over the next three years we will be attempting to improve conditions for ring ouzels, by providing the mix of habitats that we have identified as being important for successful breeding and the survival of recently-fledged young."

Scotland is home to two-thirds of the UK population of ring ouzels, which are distinguished by their black plumage and striking white breast band.

The population has probably been dropping for more than a century, and the most recent nation-wide survey shows this decline has continued at an alarming rate.

It found an estimated 3,520 breeding pairs in Scotland in 2012, compared to 5,503 in 1999, when the first national survey of the birds was carried out.

How you can help

Nature in the UK is in trouble and some of our more familiar garden species are amongst those suffering serious declines. We can all help by giving nature a home where we live.

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