Kittiwake added to list of globally threatened birds

12th December 2017

Overfishing and climate change are pushing seabirds closer to extinction, according to the latest update on the conservation status of the world’s birds by BirdLife International for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

The updated global list makes for grim reading, but of particular concern here in Ireland is the plight of the Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla, a small cliff-nesting species of gull named for its distinctive “kitt-i-wake” call.  Ireland is home to significant numbers of this species, which breeds at colonies around the Irish coast and which is now considered to be globally threatened.

Kittiwake carrying nesting material (Photo: Colum Clarke)

Kittiwake carrying nesting material
(Photo: Colum Clarke)

Overfishing and ocean changes caused by climate change have affected the availability and quality of the Kittiwake’s key prey species, especially sandeels, during the breeding season.  Without sufficient food, Kittiwake colonies in the North Atlantic and Pacific are struggling to feed their chicks, causing disastrous chick survival in recent years.  For the adults, exposure to other threats at sea such as bycatch in fishing gear, pollution, and hunting in the Faroe Islands and Greenland all have contributed to the dramatic declines of this seabird.  Nesting Kittiwake numbers have plummeted by 87% since 2000 on the Orkney and Shetland Islands, and by 96% on the Hebridean island of St Kilda.  Globally, the species is thought to have declined by around 40% since the 1970s, leading to its reclassification as “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List.

The alarming decline of the Kittiwake and other North Atlantic and Arctic seabirds, such as the Puffin, provides a painful lesson in what happens when nations take an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach to conservation,”, said  Marguerite Tarzia, European Marine Conservation Officer with BirdLife International.

We know that unfortunately there have been substantial declines at many Kittiwake colonies in Ireland,” said Dr. Stephen Newton, Senior Seabird Conservation Officer with BirdWatch Ireland.  “For example, at the key colony on the island of Ireland’s Eye, off Howth in Co. Dublin, Kittiwake numbers have declined by 50% over the past 16 years, to just 400 pairs today.

Kittiwakes need to fledge on average about 0.8 young each year to maintain a stable population.  This threshold is not being reached at many colonies, and in turn declines in breeding numbers are now being recorded.

Kittiwake nestling (Photo: Laura Glenister)

Kittiwake nestling
(Photo: Laura Glenister)

Although there is no national seabird monitoring scheme in Ireland, some colonies are monitored annually by BirdWatch Ireland staff, committed volunteers and National Parks & Wildlife Service staff.  “Monitoring” entails counting the number of breeding pairs, how many lay eggs and then seeing how many young they successfully rear.

What is driving the poor performance in Ireland is not fully known, but poor food supply is certainly a factor.  In 2016, GPS tracking of several adult Kittiwakes from Dublin showed that they were flying to areas close to the Isle of Man and North Wales in their attempts to find food.  This means they were forced to be away from their nests for significant lengths of time, which gives more opportunity for predators to destroy their eggs and chicks.  Similar tracking data from 2010 and 2011 showed that the adult Kittiwakes did not need to travel as far from the colony to find adequate amounts of food.

BirdWatch Ireland urges the Irish Government to allocate more resources to seabird monitoring so that a wider range of colonies can be monitored to see if these results are replicated at other sites; it is also important that data is gathered on stocks of sandeels, sprats and other forage fish species in order to understand what is happening to food resources for seabirds, including Kittiwakes.  BirdWatch Ireland calls for greater protection for Ireland’s globally-important seabird colonies, but most importantly, for significant action to meet our targets on greenhouse gas emissions, which are driving climate change and altering ocean temperatures.

Adult Kittiwake (Photo: Laura Glenister)

Adult Kittiwake
(Photo: Laura Glenister)

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