Whenever I think of extinct birds, the dodo is my first port of call. The duck-like bird with the huge curved beak hasn’t been around since the end of the 17th century, yet here I am, conjuring up images of the odd-looking creature.
It’s not as if the dodo ever made it to our shores; they were endemic to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean.
Sadly, birds facing extinction are not a thing of the past.
Climate change, agricultural methods, and lifestyle differences have resulted in us losing some bird species forever.
I want to share with you some of the extinct birds in the UK and those under red alert on the endangered species list.
Table of Contents
Extinct Birds in the UK
It is sad to think that any British birds were driven to extinction at the hand of man.
The Great Auk and Dalmation Pelican are two such birds that disappeared.
Other birds that were extinct but now are facing efforts to be reintegrated include the white stork and osprey.
But extinction isn’t a thing of the past.
There are many of our familiar garden birds that are facing the threat of extinction unless we change our ways.
The Great Auk
It isn’t difficult to see the similarity between the Great Auk and a common-day penguin, in fact, its genus name is Pinguinis impennis.
The large, flightless birds lived in colonies in the Outer Hebrides, taking advantage of the wetlands and cool conditions.
Razorbills still inhabit similar areas where they fish for food in the cold ocean.
The species look similar, but the auk was almost double the size of the razorbill.
They were excellent swimmers; although they had little defence against predators on land, in the water they made light work of escaping capture.
Neanderthal man loved the taste of the auk, how do we know? Archaeologists found thousands of cleanly stripped bones around the sites of 100,000-year-old campfires.
What Happened to the Great Auk?
The birds’ eggs were harvested, and their meat and skin were hunted for food.
They were also hunted to use as bait for much bigger catches.
The last known auk in the UK was killed in 1840; within 4-short years, the birds were globally extinct.
Another extinct British native is the Dalmatian Pelican.
If you’re thinking of white birds with black spots, you’re wrong! Unlike their namesake, the pelican is instantly recognizable from its curly white feathers on the head and neck, deep red lower bill, and silvery-white plumage.
These glorious birds are the largest member of the pelican family reaching up to 6-feet high, and at full stretch, they have a wingspan exceeding 11-feet.
They thrive in some cooler climate regions of the world, including the Danube Delta in Romania, and other wetland areas in Europe, Asia, and Australia.
Dalmation Pelicans were very common birds 12,000 years ago. Many bones were discovered in the peat bogs of East Yorkshire and Somerset.
They were seen elegantly soaring through the skies until 2000 years ago when the last mated pair was recorded.
What Happened to Dalmation Pelicans?
Drained wetlands heavily affected pelican’s habitat. They either failed to breed in such inhospitable conditions or were hunted for their meat and feathers for decoration.
Those Dalmatian Pelicans that once flourished in Britain were forced to flee to more suitable climates.
All is not lost…
The Wildlife Trusts conservation charity is lobbying the government to act on re-wilding plans.
The scheme would see the restoration of coastal wetlands and the re-introduction of several species, including the Dalmatian pelican.
With zero interference from mankind, it is hoped that lands return to their natural state, becoming desirable for many plant and animal species.
This is a tale with a happy ending…
The magnificent stork hadn’t been seen in Britain for over 600 years.
Its demise was courtesy of its popularity as tasty meat at medieval banquets.
It also suffered persecution as a symbol of Christianity, was hunted, and lost much of its habitat.
The last British breeding pair of white storks were recorded in 1416, nesting in the steeple of St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh.
And then, nothing, until…
The White Stork Project
Cotswold Wildlife Park initiated a successful breeding programme using injured birds brought in from Norway.
Due to the wing damage, these birds were never considered for release. It was always hoped they would hatch offspring suitable for the re-wilding project.
Fast forward to May 2020; there were 250 birds ready to release into the Knepp Estate, West Sussex.
At the time of writing, there have already been 2 successful matings, each producing 3 eggs!
Other Birds that Returned After Extinction
These magnificent birds of prey are the largest raptor ever to have graced Britain’s shores.
They soar through the sky with ease; instantly recognisable by the white tips of its fanned0out tail.
Did you know that from the late 18th century, there were none left in England?
By 1916, the last breeding pair died on the Isle of Skye, and just 2 years later, the final Britain white-tailed eagle was shot in Shetland.
If it wasn’t the widespread human persecution that the eagle’s demise, it was the dramatic changes in its habitat.
In 1975, data shows that white-tailed eagles from Norway had made their way across the North Sea to once again nest on the craggy cliff faces of Scotland.
What’s more, unlike initial when they inhabited the west coast, the birds decided to spread their wing further, and some pairs live on the east coast.
There is thought to be more than 230 breeding pairs in Scotland alone.
White-tailed eagles haven’t been spotted in the Isle of Wight since 1780, despite it being an ideal location and habitat.
All of this changed in August 2019, when a flock of juvenile birds were released on the island.
By 2020, many of them could be spotted confidently soaring in the sky over the English countryside.
In 2021, some white-tailed eagles were successfully reintegrated into Norfolk.
The poor old osprey thrived in England until the 1840s and Scotland until 1916.
It suffered at the persecuting hands of Victorian egg and skin collectors, ending with complete British extinction.
The mid-1950s saw the Osprey find its way back into Scotland; the first one was spotted at Loch Garten in the highlands. By the turn of the century, this number had steadily increased to 60-pairs.
A minority of ospreys have travelled down to Cumbria.
It took human help to reintroduced the birds back to England.
In 1996, some birds were released over Rutland Water. They settled and are still there to this day, delighting visitors with their swooping for prey antics.
Glaslyn and Dyfi in Wales are two more locations where you might see ospreys in action, but only after April. In the winter the birds migrate to Africa in search of a warmer climate.
The Poole Harbour Osprey Reintroduction Project is a 5-year plan, hoping to relocate some Scottish birds to the south coast.
With fingers crossed and prevailing wind, the birds might mate and any offspring will spread the population further afield.
UK Birds Currently Facing Extinction
Until recent years there were 4 birds on the Critical Bird Species List; Balearic shearwater, aquatic warbler, long-tailed Duck, and the Velvet scoter.
More recently, that list has extended to 8 birds, to include;
- European Turtle Dove – Due to an unexplained reduction in the number of breeding pairs, the British population of the European turtle dove has reduced by 90% since the 1970s
- Slavonian Grebe – Again, the grebe has suffered a decline in UK breeding pairs, though there is a partial explanation. Malta has an antiquated, but still ongoing spring tradition of shooting grebe from the sky. Malta happens to be on their annual migratory flight path.
- Pochards – Yet more hunted birds that are hunted and facing habitat destruction.
- Atlantic Puffins – Sand eels are the preferred food of the puffin; they are in decline so this has a knock-on effect on the puffin population. The birds also fall victim to pollution, failing to survive oil and chemical spills.
Near-threatened British Birds
Currently, there are 14-species of birds on the British “near-threatened” list.
It is just one step away from critical and facing extinction.
Frighteningly, there are several familiar names on the list;
- Curlew sandpiper
- Black-tailed godwit
- Bob-tailed godwit
- Meadow pipit
- Sooty shearwater
- Red knot
- Red kite
- Common eider
- Northern lapwing
Are Garden Birds in Fear of Extinction?
Many bird species that regularly use our feeding tables are facing a huge population decline.
The primary reason for changes in agriculture is to make farming as efficient as possible.
Birds’ habitats and food sources are disrupted as the landscape changes and with increased fertilizer use.
Although not yet on the threatened list, several species populations are causing concern.
In the 30 years from 1970, censuses discovered these worrying number declines;
Tree sparrow -95%
Corn bunting -88%
Willow tit -78%
Spotted flycatcher -77%
Song thrush -56%
How Can we Help?
We can all do our small bit to stabilise the populations of our feathered friends.
Year-round supplementary feeding helps, as does a constant supply of clean drinking water.
Setting aside an area of the garden to grow wild and inviting to the birds is a great idea; anything that increases their natural habitat.
Avoid pesticides and provide nesting sites in secure areas if possible.
Ecologists tirelessly work to re-introduce some of the extinct bird species in the UK.
It is too late for the Great Auk; they are now globally extinct.
Climate change and agricultural changes are affecting our ever-dwindling bird populations.
We all need to work together to keep our beloved bird species’ around forever.