July, 2010

Our work

Our work
You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

Saving Species

The need for species conservation has never been greater. Despite notable successes in improving the fortunes of a number of bird species, more are being forced onto the list of those that need attention, both globally and in the UK. If we want to have a
  • Species Conservation

    …in the International Year of Biodiversity

    We are indeed in interesting times. Clearly the need for conservation has never been greater. Despite notable successes in improving the fortunes of a number of bird species, more are being forced onto the list of those that need attention. Climate change, agricultural intensification, expansion of urban areas, the development of transport infrastructure, and over-exploitation of our seas all pose major threats to birds. In addition, the economic recession will have an untold impact on funding for the environment and conservation. So, just how is the 'greenest government ever', in the International Year of Biodiversity planning to steer this storm?

    Time is running outEliminating the UK’s deficit within five years requires deep and enduring reductions to budgets of nearly all government departments and their devolved administrations. Decisions made by political leaders, in response to financial unrest, will have long-lasting implications for our natural environment, climate and well-being. Actions must be made to further rather than threaten progress towards biodiversity restoration and halting it’s loss, and new policies must not undermine the progress already made.

    There is grave concern, amongst the conservation sector, that the government’s approach will not compensate a reduction in funding for conservation brought about by structural reform. There is already a gap in existing funding requirements for conservation and this is inevitably going to get bigger. Both regulation and market-based instruments are critical instruments for conservation and enhance the ability to deliver the land management that species need. It is clear that savings will be sought from the environment sector, as they will across government, however, it is essential that core funds are protected, as without them our natural environment could be irreparably damaged and species lost forever. 

    Currently a large fork looms in the road close ahead. One way takes us to a world where biodiversity loss has stopped, our economy is growing and sustainable, and ecosystems are healthy and provide life-supporting services. The other path does not even bear thinking about. On the way, there are many crucial decisions to be made, and important events to occur, which will drive and influence this journey. We must steer the stormy waters of the economic recession and the impacts this will have upon the environment sector, as well as initiate adaptation responses to climate change throughout society. In these interesting times, we must ask ourselves what we want for the future and how are species a part of this?

    Species are a part of our heritage, they inspire people, they have economic benefits, they can indicate when an ecosystem is under stress, and play a role in ecosystem function and services provision. For many years, species have been the unit of currency for conservation. They are a powerful symbol for wildlife conservation and often provide impetus and support for habitat conservation.

    We have a moral imperative to halt biodiversity loss. It threatens the life-support systems of our environment and many millions of livelihoods, particularly in areas of extreme poverty. Species recovery will always be essential for most threatened species. For the majority of species, positive land management will deliver their conservation requirements. However, some species will simply not survive without dedicated measures of protection. This will not, in the grand scheme of things, require large amounts of money, but it will deliver invaluable returns. If we loose species now, it will cost a great deal more to replace them in the future.

    Make a difference in the International Year of Biodiversity- Sign Letter to the future!
    We are gathering as many signatures as possible to raise the profile of the natural environment on the political agenda. We will achieve this by showing politicians that hundreds of thousands of people care about nature and want to see it protected not just for the short term, but for future generations. We're urging politicians to consider the health of the planet, for the sake of future generations, when making decisions about where to invest money and where to make cuts. It aims to get Governments to spend more money on saving wildlife and the environment. The 6 central messages are; create a countryside fit for wildlife, safeguard our sealife, stop extinctions, save the rainforests, stop climate chaos and inspire children through nature.

    In 2010, the UK failed to meet its commitment to halt biodiversity loss. In 2020, the UK will be aiming not only to halt biodiversity loss but also to restore it. If we want to be a nation that has a healthy countryside, rich in biodiversity, where public funds secure public goods, that is sustainable, and inspires those who live and visit here each year. Then we must safeguard our species. Our role is clear, we are nature’s voice.


  • Sinking in the cities

    UK Priority Species: House sparrow

    There are records of house sparrows from before the Stone age, they were used in Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, they were sacred to Aphrodite and her roman equivalent Venus and they were even included in some particularly fine Elizabethan recipes. Infamous throughout history, and across the globe, the house sparrow has had a big impact on human cultures everywhere, as the most widely dispersed wild bird in the world. They have followed humans out to sea on our boats, they have lived on the upper floors of the empire states building, and even bred down a 2000ft mine shaft, all in order to capitalize on their close ecological relationship with humans. Therefore, you would think, surely a booming human population could only mean good things for house sparrow populations? 

    The secrets of spaggers (one of the colloquial names for sparrows)…
    The gregarious house sparrow is perhaps the ultimate opportunitst, exploiting humans and our waste, for food and novel housing. Often seen roaming in gangs, these noisy, cheerful and quick-witted birds have been reported opening automatic doors to enter supermarkets! It would not seem possible that these extravert birds would have anything to hide…

    Interestingly, due to the public nature of their copulation, sparrows have long had associations with sex. Shakespeare famously referred to their lecherous personality in several of his works. However, the sexual behaviour of the house sparrow is actually far more intriguing. Work undertaken by Denis Summers-Smith, a world expert on sparrows, found that from visual recording, it appeared most sparrow mating occurred between established couples. However, results from DNA analysis showed, that 15% of offspring were the result of copulations with different partners. Therefore, it appears that sparrows carry out these illicit unions in secret.

    From pests to pies
    Historically, house sparrows have been viewed as pests and nuisances. In the early 20th century, we were harvesting millions of birds and tens of thousands of eggs because they were considered an agricultural pest. Harvesting even became a sporting competition, with the record for the highest level of harvesting being over 4,500 birds for one person. Birds were netted, shot, eggs were collected, nests destroyed, and some birds were even eaten in pies. It seems incredible that despite this level of harvesting, the population was hardly affected and this provides a shocking comparison to the plight this species faces today.

    Despite being protected by legislation, recognized as civilians of our towns, and being loved and fed by many members of the public, the greatest decline in house sparrow numbers has occurred in the last 2 decades. There are amazing tales of sparrow flocks, which included many thousands of individuals, and this makes me very envious. I was delighted a few weeks ago to see a group of 9 young sparrows, all sitting together in a long line on a willow branch, happily singing and looking very comical. Hearing of their comparative historical abundance is extremely sad and rather terrifying. And, as Mark Avery, the director of conservation for the RSPB has said "When even the common sparrow is declining, it shows the world is in a bad state."

    So then, just how common is the world-renowned house sparrow in 2010, the international year of biodiversity?
    Once with a population of over 25 million breeding birds, they were the commonest breeding bird in the UK, but now they’re struggling just to survive. House sparrows have clearly declined in both gardens and the wider countryside and their recent declines have been enough to earn them a place on the Red List. Numbers have dropped nationally over the last 25 years, and in London they declined by 66 % between 1995 and 2007, according to the Breeding Bird Survey. Sparrows are now absent from many areas of central London where they were once common. Populations have declined most in eastern England, which has seen a 90% decline since 1970.

    Bird monitoring often provides an indication of the health of an ecosystem. With 90% decline in some areas, what does this say about the quality and health of the environments in which we live?

    Where’s me spaggers?
    Recent research has been undertaken by the RSPB and De Montfort University to identify which environmental factors (food, predators, competitors etc) are likely to have caused the decline of house sparrow populations in towns and cities. Research has shown that house sparrows in urban areas suffer during the breeding season from a lack of insects to feed their young. This leads to poor condition and death of young chicks.

    What is the RSPB doing for house sparrows?
    A large scale feeding experiment in London has demonstrated that insects are important for the survival of young chicks. Through a new London project, we hope to find more natural ways to increase the numbers of insects available to sparrows and other birds in our urban green spaces. The London House Sparrow Parks Project is trialling different habitat management types in London parks with the aim of boosting invertebrate numbers. The habitat plots should also provide seed during the winter, and could benefit a host of urban birds, insects and other wildlife.

    The project aims to test whether long grass, native wildflower meadows or wildlife seed plots benefit house sparrows and other species the most. This will enable us to provide advice to green space managers across the country on positive management for those much loved, familiar birds that rely so much on sharing a healthy environment with people. There are currently 27 plots across London trialling these different management solutions.

    What you can do to make a difference in the International Year of Biodiversity!
    · There are many problems facing our urban wildlife, and you can make a huge difference to helping with the solutions. The power is in your hands! We need greener and healthier urban spaces. Gardens offer incredible oases for wildlife and there are really simple things you can do to make these spaces more suitable. Find out on our Homes for wildlife pages for some creative ideas. Also there is a cool blog on Gardening for wildlife which has good advice for all types of gardens.
    · If you think living in the big smoke means you have to travel to find your space in nature think again. There are many interesting species associated with the built environment. Two-thirds of London consists of green space and water, making it the world’s greenest city. It is home to more than two hundred different bird species including magnificent peregrines and humble sparrows.  Check out our Greater London pages to find out what’s going on.

  • Lost in the woods

    UK Priority Species: Wood Warbler 

    What makes the wood warbler so cool?
    Wood warblers are revealing birds, divulging their secrets to the patient, quiet watcher. They will allow you to get quite close to them and even sing to you whilst you do! The shivering call, described as the woodland sound like no other, is made up of a rapidly accelerating metallic trill interspersed with melancholy whistles. The distinctive bugle has been likened to the sound of a coin spinning on a marble tabletop. Depicted divinely by naturalist W.H. Hudson as, ‘a voice that has light and shade, rising and passing like the wind, changing as it flows and quivering like a wind-fluttered leaf.’ Captivated? Totally.

    Woodlands enrich our lives and provide us with essential life supporting systems.
    I saw in the papers recently that a study by the woodland trust has found that only 15% of people in the UK have access to a reasonable sized wood near their house. What a shame! But, if you're one of those 15% then you should feel very proud and damn lucky. Otherwise, you might want to start organising a day trip to get to one. Woodlands are a haven, offering a beautiful way to relax, with gorgeous plays of light and colours, interesting insects and awe-inspiring trees.

    However, if you go down to the woods today your in for a big surprise!
    They’re rather quiet… Woodland birds have been one of the main groups of birds to be suffering steep declines, with migrant species, such as the wood warbler experiencing an alarming 60-70% decline. The most recent review of UK bird species placed seven woodland birds on the red list and nine on the amber list of conservation concern. Mounting evidence suggests that British woodlands and their management are changing in a range of ways that may have implications for the habitat and food resources that birds depend on. However, there are a number of possible reasons for these declines and we are now just beginning to understand their relative importance.

    Breaking news just in!
    I was lucky enough to have a chat with John Mallord one of our very own conservation scientists on the front line in the research into wood warblers, who has kindly supplied these great pictures, which really capture the personality of these lovely birds. John and the team have been undertaking research into these gorgeous birds in the beautiful oak woodlands of Wales, focusing on the dramatic Dinas RSPB Reserve. In order to enable a comparison between the habitat, breeding ecology and invertebrate mass at the site, present research has repeated a study carried out in the 1980s. This research aims to provide us with some answers as to why these birds are declining.

    From steamy African tropical jungle to rolling Welsh oak woodland!
    The complexity of the problems causing woodland bird declines has meant that finding out precise factors has been difficult. There are several theories which have been expounded for wood warblers. Wood warblers are long distance summer migrant birds, journeying to wintering grounds in sub-saharan Africa. It is hard to know whether the causes of these declines are occurring here in the UK, in sub-Saharan Africa or on the migration route. Climate change has been an increasing concern for migrating species as fears that movements in suitable climate space and changes in the timings of seasons will be difficult for migrants to follow. Research in the UK has been looking at whether these seasonal changes have been causing earlier peaks in invertebrate numbers, which migrant species are not able to arrive in time for. Another possible problem that was identified from analysis of breeding woodland bird data by RSPB scientists shows that growth of the understorey of the woodland has changed the vegetation structure, making it less suitable for wood warblers. This work is ongoing but it might mean we can suggest suitable grazing regimes for the the woodlands to keep this in check. 

    Bucket loads of bugs?
    The invertebrate survey has been undertaken using water traps, whereby invertebrates simply fall from the vegetation into the water and the researchers collect them. Last year five traps (actually cat litter trays) were placed in each of 16 woods throughout the summer and emptied of their contents every week. Only samples from six woods have been analysed but these have already produced in excess of 70,000 invertebrates. Quite the exhausting job! This painstaking work has not yet been analysed but due to my good fortune on being able to get the frontline information from John, there have been some preliminary patterns emerging. Surprisingly then, that I should hear that the total of 70,000 inverts is actually less in absolute numbers than there should be! Especially caterpillars, which are the delight of the wood warblers. However, despite climate change fears the invertebrate peak has been found to occur at the same time as it has previously, and coincided with the hatching of wood warbler chicks.

    Something to warble about
    Importantly the reduction in overall bug numbers has not seemingly impacted upon the wood warblers currently at this site and they are doing really well! The chicks are apparently strong, there was a good fledging rate and the population was healthy. Really positive news for us wood warbler fans! Another positive finding was that some birds, which had been ringed last year, had returned to the same site showing faithfulness for the location.

    What you can do to make a difference in the International Year of Biodiversity!

    The Migrants in Africa project, run by the RSPB, BTO, GWS and Naturama, is investigating the decline of many of our summer migrants in African countries like Ghana & Burkhina Faso in order to try and discern if there are conservation issues affecting our migrants species on their wintering grounds. This is really important work and has far reaching implications for many UK species. Have a look here for more information. If you would like to help us help wood warblers and enable research into their declines visit www. rspb.org.uk to find out how you can get involved. The RSPB could not exist without its supporters and members. We have achieved a great deal since our small beginnings in 1889, but there is still so much to do, and therefore - we need your help! Today over a million people are members of the RSPB, and many more support us in other ways. Will you join them?

    What about a wood warbler walk in Wales?
    When spring rolls around next year why not plan a visit to see the jewel of the woodland crown? Gwenffrwd valley, where the wood warblers roam along with other woodland delights such as redstarts, is a gorgeous part of Wales. Strolling through the old oak woodlands crossed with roaring river torrents, in April to May is a glorious experience and well worth the trip. And maybe, if you’re lucky, the wood warbler will let you in on a secret!