Spotlight on threatened birds

Spoon-billed Sandpiper © Zheng Jianping (

One in eight of the world’s bird species is deemed globally threatened and the fortunes of 222 Critically Endangered species are now so perilous that they are at risk of imminent extinction. Some of these species have not been sighted for many years and may already have succumbed. Despite this, there is cause for optimism. Conservation works. Around the world dedicated conservationists—many from within the BirdLife Partnership—have orchestrated spectacular recoveries, bringing numerous species back from the brink. The message is clear: given sufficient resources and political will, species can be saved and the loss of biodiversity reversed.

The IUCN Red List is an objective and authoritative system for evaluating the global conservation status of species and categorising them according to their risk of extinction. To date, over 91,000 species of plants, animals and fungi have been assessed and their status determined (see figure). Their 2017 evaluation lists 28% of these as threatened. BirdLife International is the official Red List Authority for birds, tasked with evaluating the status of the world’s entire avifauna and keeping these data up to date. As of 2017, BirdLife has established that worldwide 1,469 bird species (13.4% of the total, or roughly one in eight) are threatened with extinction (One in eight of all bird species is threatened with global extinction). These species have small, fragmented or dwindling ranges (Most threatened birds have small ranges), tiny populations (Most threatened birds have small populations), or are declining rapidly (Most threatened birds are declining, some catastrophically). Of these, 222 species are considered Critically Endangered and face an extremely high risk of extinction in the immediate future.

Structure of IUCN Red List categories


The IUCN Red List provides a scientifically objective way of assessing species in terms of their extinction risk. Information on a taxon's population size, population trend and range size are applied to standard quantitative criteria to determine its Red List Category (Extinct, Extinct in the Wild, Critically Endangered, Endangered, Vulnerable, Near Threatened or Least Concern). Species for which there is insufficient information to apply the criteria are assessed as Data Deficient.

Although threatened bird species are found across the globe, the greatest concentrations occur in the forested tropics (Threatened birds occur in all habitats, but the majority are found in forest). Some regions hold particularly high numbers of threatened species, for example, the tropical Andes, Atlantic Forests of Brazil, eastern Madagascar, and the archipelagos of South-East Asia (Threatened birds occur in nearly all countries and territories, Some countries are particularly important for threatened birds). A disproportionately high number of threatened species, almost half, occur on islands, particularly oceanic islands far from land (Many threatened birds are restricted to small islands). For seabirds, the greatest concentrations of threatened species are found in the southern oceans, notably around New Zealand (The southern oceans are important for threatened seabirds).

Despite global conservation efforts, the overall status of the world’s birds continues to worsen. Of the world’s threatened species, over 80% have populations that are currently in decline (Most threatened birds are in decline) and there have been some truly catastrophic recent population collapses (Asian vulture populations have declined precipitously in less than a decade, Titicaca Grebe is being driven rapidly towards extinction owing to the unregulated use of gill nets). For long-lived, slow-breeding species, such as albatrosses, however, even relatively slow population declines can have alarming consequences (Many albatross species are in alarming slow decline).

The IUCN Red List Index (RLI) for birds tracks the movement of species through categories of extinction risk. It reveals a steady and ongoing deterioration in the status of the world’s species since the first comprehensive global assessment in 1988 (The status of the worlds birds has deteriorated over the last 20 years). The IUCN categories, however, are relatively broad and species often have to undergo substantial changes in order to cross the thresholds between categories. In 2004, BirdLife conducted a ‘snapshot’ survey of over 100 experts in order to get a more complete picture. It revealed that just 11% of threatened species could be judged to be improving in status (Most threatened birds are deteriorating in status).

The RLI for birds can be broken down biogeographically. The results show that although species have deteriorated in all major ecosystems and regions, these changes have not occurred evenly across the globe. Birds associated with Pacific islands, the open ocean and the lowland forests of Asia have undergone particularly sharp declines (Birds have deteriorated in status in all major ecosystems, particularly marine, Birds in some regions, notably Oceania and Asia, have deteriorated in status faster than others,   Birds in some families, notably seabirds, have deteriorated in status faster than others).

Birds are impacted by a range of threats—mostly human-derived—with the conversion of natural habitats to agricultural land the most significant (A range of threats drives declines in bird populations). The pressures associated with farming seem set to intensify as the human population grows and demand for animal protein and biofuels increases (Agricultural expansion is a major threat to birds, and appears to be increasing in importance).

Over the last five hundred years, invasive alien species have been partly or wholly responsible for the extinction of at least 65 bird species, making this the most common contributory factor in recent losses to the world’s avifauna (Invasive alien species have been implicated in nearly half of recent bird extinctions). Invasive species affect around half of currently threatened bird species. Island species are particularly susceptible, with three-quarters of threatened birds on oceanic islands affected by invasive species (Small island birds are most at risk from invasive alien species). Rats and cats have had far and away the greatest impact, threatening the survival of hundreds of different bird species worldwide, but other species have also had devastating impacts (Native birds on Gough Island are being devastated by house mice, Native forest birds in the Hawaiian Islands are limited by introduced avian diseases, Endemic birds on Christmas Island are being devastated by introduced ants, Bird populations in the Northern Mariana Islands are being decimated by brown tree snakes).

Hunting and trapping (The Red List Index for utilised bird species illustrates their deterioration in status, Overexploitation is a threat to many large and conspicuous bird species, Sought-after species face rapid declines, The Red List Index for internationally traded bird species shows their deterioration in status), logging (In Papua New Guinea, deforestation for oil palm plantations is causing declines in endemic birds), urbanisation (Threatened birds indicate the consequences of unchecked infrastructure development), pollution (Pollution from agriculture, forestry and industry has significant impacts on birds, Vultures are under threat from the veterinary drug diclofenac) and fisheries (Trawl fisheries cause significant mortality to albatrosses along the west coast of southern Africa) are also major threats, with climate change becoming increasingly significant (The biological traits of some bird species render them particularly vulnerable to climate change, In Hawaii, climate change will increase the impact of disease, The number of montane endemic birds that go extinct in Australia depends on the degree of warming).

In 2010, BirdLife confirmed the extinction of Alaotra Grebe Tachybaptus rufolavatus—the latest in a long line of tragic demises attributable to humankind. The coming years will almost certainly bring other sad losses, however, there remains cause for optimism. Given sufficient resources and political will, species can be saved from extinction. The Herculean efforts of conservationists have brought numerous species back from the brink. A recent study showed that at least 33 bird species would have disappeared in the last century, including 16 during 1994–2004 without dedicated conservation action (Without conservation action, 16 bird species would have gone extinct over the last ten years, Back from the brink: four Critically Endangered species saved from extinction). These include Mauritius Parakeet Psittacula eques, which had been reduced to fewer than a dozen birds in 1986 before targeted intervention led to its spectacular recovery (Nest protection and brood manipulation has helped the Mauritius Parakeet to recover). California Condor Gymnogyps californianus and Asian Crested Ibis Nipponia nippon reached similarly perilous numbers before intensive reintroduction programmes pulled them back from the edge (Captive breeding plays a crucial part in bringing the Californian Condor back from the brink, Captive breeding and release of Asian Crested Ibis: linking Japan and China). Successful conservation interventions such as these can involve a variety of actions, from raising public awareness (Raising public awareness to save the Yellow-eared Parrot) to providing supplementary food (Supplementary feeding for vultures in Nepal) and translocating birds (Translocating Rimatara Lorikeets to Atiu, Cook Islands, Bermuda Petrel is being conserved through translocation and provision of artificial nest-sites).

BirdLife has identified the priority conservation actions needed for all Critically Endangered species and launched a ‘Preventing Extinctions Programme’ in order to ensure they are implemented. To date, the initiative has appointed ‘Species Guardians’—local organisations or individuals responsible for leading initiatives to reverse the fortunes for almost 60 the world’s most imperilled species (Species Guardians and Species Champions: taking and funding action for the most threatened species). For example, in the Azores, SPEA (BirdLife in Portugal)—the Species Guardian for the archipelago’s endemic Bullfinch Pyrrhula murina—has had huge success in reversing the species’ decline through habitat management and restoration (Habitat restoration has led to the recovery of the Azores Bullfinch).

Critically Endangered Birds: A Global Audit


For more detailed information on the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme, see the report; Saving the world’s most threatened birds: the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme. 




To access more case studies on threatened birds and BirdLife's work to save them, please click on the following links.

BirdLife's species work
Globally Threatened Bird Forums
BirdLife news story: 2017 IUCN Red List update—Seabirds starving, songbirds trapped, hope for pelican and kiwis
BirdLife news story: 2016 IUCN Red List update—6 things you might have missed from the 2016 Red List
BirdLife news story: 2016 IUCN Red List update—Great news for island endemics, disaster for cagebirds
BirdLife news story: 2015 IUCN Red List update—vultures, shorebirds and other iconic species

BirdLife news story: 2014 IUCN Red List update—One tenth of bird species flying under the conservation radar
BirdLife news story: 2013 IUCN Red List update—Red List for Birds 2013: Number of Critically Endangered birds hits new high
BirdLife news story: 2012 IUCN Red List update—Threat to the Amazon’s birds greater than ever, Red List update reveals
BirdLife news story: 2011 IUCN Red List update—big birds lose out in a crowded world
IUCN Red List

Compiled 2011, updated 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2017) Spotlight on threatened birds. Presented as part of the BirdLife State of the world's birds website. Available from:


BirdLife acknowledges and thanks its Founder Patrons, the A. G. Leventis Foundation, the Aage V. Jensen Charity Foundation, the Tasso Leventis Foundation, Zeiss, Ryuzo Kosugi and all BirdLife Species Champions for supporting its Red List assessments and the taxonomic work that underpins them. Thanks also to Lynx Edicions/HBW and to everyone who contributes information to the Red List assessments, including via the Globally Threatened Bird Forums (