Some British Birds In Danger

Posted on: 13 June 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

Michael Wale talks with an academic who has spent a year and a half identifying which British birds could be endanger in the future.

Dr Gavin Thomas has spent the last year and a half working on a family tree of the origin of every bird in Britain, that he says will help to work out which breeds are in danger of extinction in the future.

Dr Thomas, who is based at Imperial College in London, suspects certain species of the thrush, green finch and the ptarmigan are currently at risk.

“I wanted to do this family tree of birds from a conservation angle. By making a family tree I hope to flag up species at risk in the future.”

Grahame Madge of the RSPB agrees that the ptarmigan is already at risk, because of global warming. 

"The ptarmigan is an arctic bird which finds a home in the northern most part of Britain. The snow bunting is also doomed at the moment because of global warming," Grahame tell me. 

"Warm temperatures are getting warmer further and further up the country, where it was not warm before, so these species of birds are driven to the highest points of land in Scotland. But how long will that last, and they be driven out altogether, only time will tell.”

Internationally Grahame Madge spotlights the albatross as the bird most at risk, and closer to home.  

“There are a number of birds whose future is worrying us because of modern agricultural methods and hunting in the past," he says.

"The bittern is now down to only 50.  In fact there are so few of them that we know each one individually and have given each one a name. They are still on our red list, which means they are most at risk."

"The Red Kite was another bird that needed a considerable amount of help to bring it back into circulation. The Common Market agricultural policy has not helped British birds. I think that Dr Thomas' family tree of birds will help us in our constant fight to preserve them.”

As for Dr Thomas, who has been interested in birds since he was a boy, when he was a member of the Young Ornithologists Club for junior members of the RSPB, he has one piece of good news.  He thinks the blackbird is going to be safe in the future, but sadly, he is not so certain about the thrush.

The RSPB have already pointed out that the common house sparrow can hardly been seen in London these days. They have yet to find a reason for this, but are investigating. 

It could be that the insects that birds feed on in the inner cities have disappeared, and this could be caused by the increasing habit of people concreting over their gardens. A factor that is already affecting the flow of water in the Thames, where it cannot disappear into the land, and therefore finds its way into the river, often causing flooding where there has been none before.

Dr Thomas says that we must still be prudent, even with the species of birds which seem safe at the moment, because the future could be very different.   That is why his main focus when compiling the bird family tree, was examining why some can live together and others cannot.

"Presenting this family tree can help us tell the future" he says.  "It was enormously hard to do, especially loading all the data into the computer, which alone took three months."

"I am now working in America looking at ways that we could do a world family tree of birds. In my British family tree I have traced every species of bird, and found that in fact they are closely related.”

Dr Thomas’s favourite British bird which he hopes will not be at risk is the barn owl. 

"There are parts of Norfolk where you can see them in the daytime. To me they are always wonderful to see, even if you have seen them plenty of times before.”

Let's hope Dr Thomas continues in his work that will help to save the world's birds. 

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