One tenth of bird species flying under the conservation radar

More than 350 newly recognised bird species have been assessed by BirdLife International for the first time on behalf of The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™. Worryingly, more than 25% of these newly recognised birds have been listed as threatened on The IUCN Red List – compared with 13% of all birds – making them urgent priorities for conservation action.

The first of a two-part comprehensive taxonomic review has focused on non-passerine birds – such as birds of prey, seabirds, waterbirds and owls – and has led to the recognition of 361 new species, that were previously treated as ‘races’ of other forms. The new total of 4,472 non-passerines implies that previous classifications have undersold avian diversity at the species level by more than 10%.

“Put another way, one tenth of the world’s bird species have been flying below the conservation radar”, said Dr Stuart Butchart, BirdLife’s Head of Science.

Species such as Belem Curassow (Crax pinima) from Brazil and Desertas Petrel (Pterodroma deserta) from Madeira have been listed as Globally Threatened. In the case of the Blue-bearded Helmetcrest (Oxypogon cyanolaemus), a beautiful hummingbird from Colombia, it may already be too late, as the species has not been seen for nearly 70 years.

The new criteria for determining which taxa qualify as species have created a level playing field, by which all bird species can be assessed equally. They also bring an added precision to help us shine a light on the places most important for birds, nature and people – the areas of the planet that we need to urgently protect and save.

Until now, only one species of Ostrich had been recognised and was assessed as Least Concern on The IUCN Red List. However, Somali Ostrich (Struthio molybdophanes), which is found in Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya, is now recognised as a distinct species and listed as Vulnerable. Its population is thought to be in rapid decline because of hunting, egg-collecting and persecution, and its status could worsen if action is not taken soon.

“This species highlights both the need for improved knowledge of the world’s birds and the need for conservation action in some of the most challenging parts of the globe”, said Andy Symes, BirdLife’s Global Species Officer.

“The latest reassessment of birds for The IUCN Red List highlights the importance of taxonomic review in accurately identifying the conservation status of species, as well as those areas which require priority conservation action,” says Jane Smart, Global Director, IUCN Biodiversity Conservation Group. “Thanks to the ongoing assessment work of BirdLife, the early recognition of those threatened species such as the Somali Ostrich should result in timely targeted action to safeguard the species and protect important sites.”

As well as assessing newly recognised species, the 2014 Red List also re-assesses the status of some existing species. The colourful Bugun Liocichla (Liocichla bugunorum) is known from only three small areas in the Himalayas of eastern India, where just a few pairs have been located. Following the recent construction of a road through its habitat, and damage caused by uncontrolled fires, the species has been re-classified as Critically Endangered. Thanks to successful conservation efforts, Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) is recovering in Europe, but globally it is declining because of poisoning, disturbance and collisions with powerlines, resulting in it being assessed as Near Threatened rather than Least Concern.

The 2014 assessment also raises the importance of several threatened bird hotspots. Many of the newly recognised species are found in South-East Asia, where biodiversity is highly threatened. Parts of this region have already been identified as globally important areas of endemism (holding many species that occur nowhere else on Earth). Some have now been shown to host even more unique species than previously thought, including the Indonesian islands of Talaud and Sangihe and parts of the Philippine archipelago, such as the island of Cebu.

These areas need immediate conservation attention to protect the remaining habitat and safeguard the future of Critically Endangered birds such as Sangihe Dwarf-kingfisher (Ceyx sangirensis) and Cebu Brown-dove (Phapitreron frontalis) – neither of which have been recorded recently, but both could still be clinging on in small numbers.

There are also some worrying implications for conservation on the Indonesian island of Java. Newly recognised species such as Javan Flameback (Chrysocolaptes strictus), a species of woodpecker classified as Vulnerable, and Javan Blue-banded Kingfisher (Alcedo euryzona) which enters The IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered, show how the island has evolved many distinct species. However, Java’s very high human population density and increasing rates of development and encroachment are impacting the conservation status of these endemic species, which are now threatened with extinction.

“The IUCN Red List is crucial not only for helping to identify those species needing targeted recovery efforts, but also for focussing the conservation agenda by identifying the key sites and habitats that need to be saved, including Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas”, said Butchart. “The updated 2014 Red List for birds will help set future conservation and funding priorities.”

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News story written by Martin Fowlie, a Communications Officer at BirdLife International.


BirdLife International maintains its own taxonomic checklist of the world’s bird species because: (1) there are so many different global, regional, national, site and family taxonomic checklists, and (2) the current major phase of taxonomic revision requires BirdLife to track and evaluate new arrangements as they are proposed; thus there is an urgent and sustained need to resolve the taxonomic rank of many taxa. In undertaking this work, BirdLife seeks to set a globally consistent taxonomic standard relevant to establishing conservation priorities through, for example, identifying globally threatened bird species, Endemic Bird Areas (EBAs) and Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs).

BirdLife uses its taxonomic checklist as the basis for much of its global, regional and national priority-setting work. However, some BirdLife Partners may also use other regional / national checklists and taxonomic sources that are particularly relevant in their context.

The BirdLife Checklist includes information on the scientific and common names used by BirdLife, the Authority (for the original description of the taxon), BirdLife’s taxonomic treatment (recognised, not recognised or under review), the latest IUCN Red List category (e.g. Extinct, Vulnerable, Least Concern), where relevant, a taxonomic note, and a record ID number unique to the taxonomic entity. The BirdLife Checklist is a work in progress. Further updates and releases are planned on an annual basis. We hope we have provided adequate details here of the underlying decisions that shape the taxonomic checklist; further comments are invited at any time (contact but it may not be possible to respond to individual queries.

The BirdLife Taxonomic Working Group (BTWG) sets the standards by which BirdLife takes and implements decisions on bird taxonomy and nomenclature. It aims to ensure that BirdLife’s Checklist of the world’s bird species evolves in a structured, documented, transparent and defensible way. The BTWG now uses a set of criteria by which species rank can be consistently assessed where this is necessary (e.g. for newly described or split species published subsequent to the main sources). These criteria (Tobias et al. 2010) involve weighting morphological and acoustic differences as compared with the nearest believed relative, and are particularly intended to help make decisions involving allopatric taxa (as opposed to those in sympatric, parapatric or hybrid zones situations where the situation is generally clearer).

Archive of earlier versions of the BirdLife Taxonomic Checklist

The BirdLife Taxonomic Checklist is currently in a transitional phase.

For all non-passerines, we have now applied quantitative criteria for species delimitation, using the scoring system to evaluate differences in morphology, vocalizations, ecology and geographical relationships published in Tobias et al. (2010) , in conjunction with the HBW and BirdLife International Illustrated Checklist of the Birds of the World, Volume 1,published by Lynx Edicions in association with BirdLife. Common (English) names, species sequence and higher level taxonomy (order, family and genus arrangement) all now follow the Illustrated Checklist Vol. 1 for non-passerines. del Hoyo and Collar (2014) therefore becomes the standard source for BirdLife’s non-passerine taxonomy.

BirdLife next intends to apply the same taxonomic approach to the passerines, the results of which will be published in Volume 2 of the Illustrated Checklist (currently scheduled for publication in 2016) and which will be incorporated into a revised BirdLife Taxonomic Checklist in due course.


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