2021 Annual Update

Secretarybird © Johan Swanepoel/ Shutterstock.com

State of the World’s Birds: 2021 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 2020 Red List update saw 40 species being uplisted to higher threat categories and 78 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 uplisting of three once-common and wide-ranging African raptors. Secretarybird Sagittarius serpentarius, Martial Eagle Polemaetus bellicosus and Bateleur Terathopius ecaudatus have been uplisted to Endangered, following alarming rates of decline driven by habitat loss and degradation, poisoning, poaching and disturbance.

Conversely, Seychelles Paradise-flycatcher Terpsiphone corvina was downlisted from Critically Endangered to Vulnerable, following a steady population increase over the last two decades and successful reintroduction to two islands. Black-necked Crane Grus nigricollis was also downlisted from Vulnerable to Near Threatened, thanks to successful restoration and protection of its wetland habitat following community engagement.


Case study – The EU failed to meet its 2020 target for birds    

The European Union’s Biodiversity Strategy to 2020 included a target to increase the proportion of bird species assessed under the Birds Directive with a secure or improving population status in the EU from 52% to 78% by 2020. Despite some initial progress, this target was not met, with only 57% of species in target condition by 2020. Under the new European Green Deal and the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, Member States have an opportunity to address these shortcomings.


 Percentage of bird species with secure or improving population status in the EU. Source: Data from European Commission (2020).

Case study – Australia's birds suffered from intense bushfires during 2019–2020 

Major fires during 2019–2020 burnt 20% of the forests in south-eastern Australia and killed millions of birds. Many threatened species were brought closer to extinction, while other species not previously considered at risk now need to be re-assessed. For example, on Kangaroo Island, off South Australia, all 17 endemic subspecies are thought to have lost more than 30% of their populations, causing them to suddenly meet thresholds for listing as threatened. However, stories of survival give room for hope, as does evidence of recovery from past fires. The greatest concern is that climate change will increase the frequency of such catastrophic events to levels beyond their capacity to recover, but there is a great determination to learn from the experience and develop responses that will mitigate the impacts of future fires.


Regent Honeyeater © Dean Ingwersen/ BirdLife Australia

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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, hunting and trapping, invasive alien species, residential and commercial development, and fire and fire suppression. These same threats also emerge highly from monitoring of Important Bird & Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) by the BirdLife Partnership. The 2020 update to BirdLife’s list of IBAs in Danger includes 277 sites in 48 countries and territories.

The relative importance of different threats to globally threatened bird species based on the impact of the threat and the number of species affected. Only threats of medium or high impact are considered. Many species are affected by more than one threat.



Case study – COVID-19 has had a largely negative impact on bird conservation  

Illegal killing of three Giant Ibis in Chhep Wildlife Sanctuary, Cambodia © WCS

The COVID-19 pandemic which began in late 2019 has had a devastating impact on human health, the economy, and livelihoods worldwide. It has also had widespread, mostly negative impacts on international bird conservation, the full extent of which is yet to be determined. Travel restrictions, social distancing measures and wage cuts have impacted fieldwork and on-the-ground conservation, while governments have largely turned attention and funding away from environmental issues. Reduced law enforcement has led to increased reports of illegal killing, including the poaching of three Critically Endangered Giant Ibis Thaumatibis gigantea in Cambodia. Field programmes have also been affected by travel restrictions, leading to gaps in monitoring schemes and cessation of practical conservation work in many areas. For example, evacuation of personnel carrying out cat eradication work on Santa Luzia island in Cape Verde may have seriously threatened the success of the recent reintroduction of Critically Endangered Raso Lark Alauda razae.  

Case study – Climate change in the Neotropics is predicted to cause range shifts in species for which IBAs have been identified 

Climate change is predicted to cause range shifts in many bird species, which may compromise the effectiveness of protected areas. Species Distribution Modelling of 941 species of conservation concern across the Caribbean, Central and South America shows widespread shifts in species distributions and declines in species richness under climate change. This would have a substantial impact on species assemblages in current Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs, Key Biodiversity Areas identified for birds). The turnover of species within IBAs is predicted to vary spatially across the Neotropics, with some IBAs increasing in conservation value and others decreasing. Overall, the IBA network is predicted to remain robust, however dynamic management of IBAs will be necessary to cope with shifting conservation objectives.

The Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA) network in Central and South America, showing turnover in species of conservation concern (i.e. those for which IBAs have been identified) by 2070 under climate change. Values represent ensemble means across three Global Climate Models and an intermediate/ business as usual emissions scenario (rcp45). Source: BirdLife International & National Audubon Society (2017)



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Analysis of the latest data show that 20% of Important Bird & Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) are now completely covered by protected areas and that 45% of sites are partially covered, while 35% 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. 


Percentage of Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) with complete, partial, or no coverage by protected areas.


Case study – Conservation actions have prevented up to 18 bird extinctions since 2010

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)’s Aichi Target 12 aimed to prevent the extinction of known threatened species by 2020. Although this target was not fully met, a recent study showed that conservation action has prevented 9-18 bird extinctions during this period, and 21-32 since the adoption of the CBD in 1993, meaning that the extinction rate would have been 3.1-4.2 times higher in the absence of conservation. The most frequently implemented conservation actions for the species estimated as likely or almost certain to have gone extinct in the absence of such actions were invasive alien species control, ex situ conservation, and site/area protection, corresponding to the greatest threats faced by these species (invasive species, habitat loss through agriculture, and hunting). For example, Fatu Hiva Monarch Pomarea whitneyi from French Polynesia would very likely have been driven extinct by invasive alien rats had these not been controlled under a conservation programme.


Probability that particular threatened bird species would have gone extinct during 2010-2020 in the absence of conservation action. Points and lines show minimum, best and maximum estimates, averaged across all individuals involved in the expert elicitation exercise (see Bolam et al. 2020 for detailed methods). The probability is set to 1 by definition for species that qualified as Extinct in the Wild at the start of the period. Source: Bolam et al. (2020).



Case study – Newly identified marine IBAs for penguins in Antarctica provide support to the proposed MPA network

A team of scientists from seven countries have identified 63 marine Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs, Key Biodiversity Areas identified for birds) for four penguin species breeding in Antarctica—Adélie Pygoscelis adeliae, Chinstrap Pygoscelis antarcticus, Gentoo Pygoscelis papua and Emperor Aptenodytes forsteri. These are some of the most important areas for each of the species globally. Their results show that if the proposed network of Marine Protected Areas for Antarctic waters were implemented, areas in which some of the most important global sites for chick-rearing adult penguins could be protected or have more effective management regulations in place would increase by between 49% to 100% depending on the species. The results support the need to designate the proposed MPA network, and offer additional guidance as to where decision-makers should act before further perturbation occurs in the Antarctic marine ecosystem.

Gentoo Penguin © Liam Quinn


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