2020 Annual Update

Guam Rail © Andersen Air Force

State of the World’s Birds: 2020 Annual Update


This annual update summarises and profiles some of the key developments in bird science and conservation over the last year. Since the last comprehensive edition of State of the World’s Birds was published in 2018, knowledge and evidence has continued to accumulate about the changing conservation status and trends of the world’s birds (STATE), the threats causing birds to decline (PRESSURE), and the conservation actions being taken to improve their status (RESPONSE).



BirdLife International is the official Red List Authority for birds, responsible for assessing and documenting the global extinction risk of all 11,000 species for the IUCN Red List. Following transparent expert discussions on BirdLife’s Globally Threatened Bird Forums, the 2019 Red List update saw 26 species being uplisted to higher threat categories and 35 downlisted to lower threat categories.

Number of species in each IUCN Red List category (numbers in red indicate the net change since the previous year's assessment).


The highest profile change was the downlisting of Guam Rail Hypotaenidia owstoni from Extinct in the Wild to Critically Endangered – only the second bird species in history to have recovered like this, after California Condor Gymnogyps californianus. On Mauritius, long-term conservation efforts for Echo Parakeet Psittacula eques paid off when it was downlisted from Endangered to Vulnerable.

Conversely, Gurney's Pitta Hydrornis gurneyi was uplisted from Endangered to Critically Endangered, reflecting the alarming level of destruction of its remaining lowland forest habitat in Myanmar. Imperial Amazon Amazona imperialis, endemic to Dominica, was also uplisted from Endangered to Critically Endangered, as the threats it faced from habitat loss and trapping have been compounded by the impact of 2017’s Hurricane Maria – the strongest storm known to have hit Dominica to date.


Case study – Asian songbird crisis deepens

The Asian bird trade spells trouble for many species. Besides their popularity as pets, they are highly sought after as contestants in bird song competitions. In 2012, a Greater Green Leafbird Chloropsis sonnerati won the highly prestigious President’s Cup Bird Competition in Indonesia, sparking a huge and unsustainable demand for this and similar species. In 2019, Greater Green Leafbird, Sumatran Leafbird Chloropsis media and Javan Leafbird Chloropsis cochinchinensis were all uplisted to Endangered as a result of population declines driven by unsustainable levels of trapping.

Greater Green Leafbird © vil.sandi, Flickr


Case study – A new approach for confirming extinction

In 2017, a series of papers co-authored by BirdLife scientists laid out methods for quantitatively estimating the probability that a species had become extinct using data on records, surveys and threats to the species. In 2018, BirdLife published a paper applying these methods to 61 confirmed or potentially extinct bird species, which identified a suite of species needing reclassification. These changes were made in the 2019 Red List update, when Spix's Macaw Cyanopsitta spixii was reclassified as Extinct in the Wild and several others as Extinct or Possibly Extinct.

Spix's Macaw © Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation

Probability that bird species remain extant estimated from the timing and certainty of records and the timing and adequacy of surveys (y axis) and the severity, extent and timing of threats (x axis). Black dots represent species currently classified as Critically Endangered. Red dots represent species currently classified as Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct) or Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct in the Wild). Red triangles represent species currently classified as Extinct. The pink box shows the proposed boundaries for Possibly Extinct. The red box shows the proposed boundaries for Extinct. SOURCE Butchart et al. (2018) Which bird species have gone extinct? A novel quantitative classification approach. Biol. Conserv. 227: 9–18.


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Analysis of data from BirdLife’s latest species assessments for the IUCN Red List shows that the threats affecting the greatest number of the world’s threatened bird species are (in descending order) agriculture, logging, invasive alien species, hunting and trapping, climate change and severe weather, and residential and commercial development. These same threats also emerge highly from monitoring of Important Bird & Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) by the BirdLife Partnership. The 2019 update to BirdLife’s list of IBAs in Danger includes 255 sites in 48 countries and territories.

The relative importance of different threats to globally threatened bird species based on the number of species affected. Many species are affected by more than one threat.



Case study – Scale of illegal killing across African-Eurasian Flyway revealed

In 2015, BirdLife scientists published the first quantitative assessment of the scale and scope of illegal killing and taking of birds across the Mediterranean region. This was followed in 2017 by an equivalent study covering Northern and Central Europe and the Caucasus. In 2019, BirdLife published a third review, encompassing the Arabian Peninsula and Persian Gulf. The combined results of these three papers indicate that between 13 and 43 million birds are illegally killed or taken across this wider region every year, including individuals of numerous threatened and declining species.

The mean estimated number of birds illegally killed/taken per year per country. The assessment was only carried out in some provinces within Iran and Saudi Arabia. SOURCE Brochet et al. (2016) Preliminary assessment of the scope and scale of illegal killing and taking of birds in the Mediterranean. Bird Conservation International 26: 1–28. Brochet et al. (2019) Illegal killing and taking of birds in Europe outside the Mediterranean: assessing the scope and scale of a complex issue. Bird Conservation International 29: 10–40. Brochet et al. (2019) A preliminary assessment of the scope and scale of illegal killing and taking of wild birds in the Arabian peninsula, Iran and Iraq. Sandgrouse 41: 154-175.



Case study – Global assessment of threats to seabirds

In 2019, BirdLife scientists published the first objective quantitative assessment of the threats to all 359 species of seabirds, using the standardised Threats Classification Scheme developed for the IUCN Red List. The top three threats to seabirds in terms of number of species affected and average impact are invasive alien species (affecting 165 species), bycatch in fisheries (affecting 100 species, but with the greatest average impact), and climate change/severe weather (affecting 96 species). Overfishing, hunting/trapping and disturbance are also identified as major threats to some seabirds.

Threats to some of the most threatened groups of seabirds. Values represent the percentage of species in each group affected. SOURCE Dias et al. (2019) Threats to seabirds: A global assessment. Biological Conservation.



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Analysis of the latest data show that 21% of Important Bird & Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) are now completely covered by protected areas and that 44% of sites are partially covered, while 36% still have no coverage by protected areas. On average, 46% of the area of each IBA is now covered by protected areas, up from 35% in 2000. Overall, 2,437 IBAs (18% of the total network, and 27% of IBAs in BirdLife Partner countries) have directly benefited from conservation action implemented by the BirdLife Partnership since 2013. Furthermore, 39% of threatened bird species worldwide have directly benefited from BirdLife Partner actions since 2013.

Actions implemented by BirdLife Partners between 2013 and 2017 have directly benefited 18% of the world’s Important Bird & Biodiversity Areas (IBAs).
Actions implemented by BirdLife Partners between 2013 and 2017 have directly benefited 39% of the world’s globally threatened bird species.


Case study – Protection for migratory waterbirds along China’s Yellow Sea coast

Far Eastern Curlew © Wang LiQiang

The Yellow Sea is at the centre of the East Asian–Australasian Flyway, a migration ‘super highway’ that supports the world’s greatest overall numbers, diversity and number of threatened species of migratory waterbirds. It links the waterbird populations of more than 22 countries and serves as the most important staging area for migratory waterbirds birds along the flyway. The mudflats of the Yellow Sea are vitally important for the survival of more than 17 globally threatened migratory shorebirds. In 2019, the decision of the World Heritage Committee to inscribe key sites along China’s Yellow Sea coastline on the World Heritage List was therefore a major cause for celebration.


Case study – Vulture recoveries in Nepal

In 2019, the clearest evidence yet emerged of the effectiveness of a combination of measures to save Asian vultures by banning diclofenac (the veterinary drug responsible for vulture declines) and establishing Vulture Safe Zones. Efforts by SAVE (Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction) led to a ban on veterinary use of diclofenac in Nepal in 2006. SAVE then established Vulture Safe Zones to raise awareness, advocate conservation, provide vultures with safe food, and encourage the use of meloxicam (a vulture-safe alternative drug). In 2019, monitoring confirmed that White-rumped Vulture Gyps bengalensis and Slender-billed Vulture Gyps tenuirostris (both Critically Endangered) are now recovering in Nepal.

Monitoring data confirm that White-rumped Vulture Gyps bengalensis and Slender-billed Vulture Gyps tenuirostris are now recovering in Nepal. SOURCE data kindly provided by Rhys E. Green. Galligan et al. (2019) Partial recovery of Critically Endangered Gyps vulture populations in Nepal. Bird Conservation International, 1-16. doi:10.1017/S0959270919000169


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BirdLife's work on State of the World's Birds is generously funded by the Aage V. Jensen Charity Foundation.