West Coast kittiwakes facing extinction

Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla, on nest, Isle of May National Nature reserve, June 2001

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The black-legged kittiwake, a small species of gull found in Scotland, has been added to the list of birds considered to be facing a high risk of global extinction.

The latest annual revision of birds on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species brings the total number of UK bird species considered to be facing the risk of extinction to nine.

Globally, the species is thought to have declined by around 40 per cent since the 1970s, justifying its upgrading from Least Concern to Vulnerable.

The RSPB argues climate change and fishing that sets aside too little for the birds are pushing the kittiwake closer to extinction by affecting the availability and quality of sand eels, a crucial food source, during the breeding season.

Kittiwake pair displaying at their nest.
Kittiwake pair displaying at their nest.

Over 70 per cent of the British breeding kittiwake population is found in Scotland. The RSPB reported ‘alarming’ trends in their numbers here, particularly in Orkney and Shetland where breeding birds have declined by 87 per cent since 2000, and on St Kilda in the Western Isles where as much as 96 per cent of the breeding population has been lost.

Laura Bambini, RSPB Scotland’s seabird recovery officer, said: ‘Some efforts are under way to protect important seabird foraging areas in international waters, but there is still much more to be done around Scotland and the rest of the UK to protect our internationally important and increasingly threatened seabird populations.’

In the North Sea, sand eels provide a vital food source for many species of seabird and are crucial to the breeding success of kittiwakes. However, sand eels are threatened by rising sea temperatures and are the target of an industrial fishery. As a result, kittiwake food supplies could be affected by both local and large-scale processes.

Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla in flight.
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla in flight.

Alex Kinninmonth, RSPB Scotland’s head of marine policy, said: ‘Frequent and widespread breeding failure is now being observed in several of Scotland’s breeding seabird species, particularly those reliant on sand eels. Kittiwakes are among the worst hit and are clearly struggling to cope with the effects of a changing food supply.

‘If they are to have any hope, it’s critically important that we act on climate change, and make sure added pressure from fisheries, pollution and marine development don’t make an already bad situation far worse.’

The other regularly occurring birds in the UK classed as ‘vulnerable’ to global extinction on the IUCN Red List are the Atlantic puffin, European turtle dove, pochard, Slavonian grebe, long-tailed duck, velvet scoter and aquatic warbler. The Balearic shearwater, a regularly-occurring migrant in the UK waters, is ‘critically endangered’.