SEO-Birdlife, the Spanish Ornithological Society, has just published the 2021 version of the Libro Rojo de las aves de España – Spain Red List for Birds which updates the previous edition of 2004. As usual, the species are assessed following the method established by IUCN and many of them are classified in one of the categories of extinction risk. Several conclusions are absolutely shocking in this report.
Red list: a threatened birdlife
Let us recall the importance of Spain’s biodiversity in the European context, and in particular of its avifauna made up of 398 regular taxa (out of a total of 622 species cited at least once). This Red Book therefore evokes the state of bird populations in the richest region of the European Union.
Of the 359 species assessed, more than half of the species present conservation problems and a quarter of them (90 species) are directly threatened with extinction (Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable). By purely comparing the numbers of threatened species, the situation looks quite similar to that of 2004. One has to look in the details to understand the extent of the threats.
The Red Book analyzes separately breeding populations from one hand and wintering / migrating populations on the other hand. As a rule, only breeders are at risk.
18 species are critically endangered (CR), most of them waterbirds and seabirds. Note that for the Endangered (EN) and Vulnerable (VU) categories, the numbers of threatened species and specialists in these two habitats are similar, with a total of 24 waterbirds and 17 threatened seabirds.
Critically Endangered (CR) Wetland Birds: Black-tailed Godwit, Curlew, Bittern, Garganey, Marbled Teal, Crested Coot, Black Tern, Ferruginous duck and Reed Bunting.
Large-scale wetlands have been legally protected for several decades in Spain and are home to the greatest bird biodiversity. Despite everything, it seems difficult to re-establish favorable environmental conditions there for the rarest breeders who require high-quality habitats. Conclusion: the degradation of aquatic environments continues on a large scale in Spain despite the end of the outright destruction of large wetlands and their inclusion in protected natural areas. The bloodiest examples being the Mar Menor lagoon, the Tablas de Daimiel, Doñana itself or the almost destroyed Laguna de La Janda.
Critically Endangered (CR) Seabirds: Macaronesian (Barolo) Shearwater, Manx Shearwater, Balearic Shearwater, White-faced storm petrel, Common Murre, Black-legged Kittiwake.
Although the protection of seabird nesting sites is generally ensured in Spain, their numbers continue to decline. This situation is explained by the fact that these species live over vast areas. The degradation of the marine ecosystem is a global phenomenon that goes far beyond the national framework.
Other critically endangered species (CR): rare and restricted birds: Lesser Grey-shrike, Gran Canaria blue chaffinch. Let us add a species that is a noteworthy exception: the Western capercaillie, a large forest bird, which requires large areas and high habitat quality. Three emblematic species that continue to decline.
The steppe and farmland birds in distress
The Endangered and Vulnerable categories see the massive entry of species linked to semi-natural, open and low-altitude ecosystems: pseudo-steppes, dehesas, vineyards and agricultural mosaics. The Red List highlights a real massacre of shrikes, larks, Rufous-tailed scrub robin, bustards, rollers, gangas, harriers, hawks, red kites, quails, partridges … with a total of 31 endangered species, almost all of which populations are in dizzying decline.
Unfortunately, this assessment is hardly a surprise, given the scale of the situation across the country and the general tone on the European continent. We are about to experience Rachel Carson’s famous “silent spring” (1962). Industrial and chemical agriculture, favored by the CAP, is so efficient that it leaves no room for wildlife and peasants over immense expanses of the territory. The degradation of rural Spain continues because of the inaction of the public authorities and the almost general indifference of the society.
Nevertheless, the initial distribution area extended over the entire Iberian Peninsula and the large initial numbers of steppe birds still ensure a presence over almost the entire territory. On the positive side, the conservation experience of the Great Bustard shows that this decline is also reversible … The conservation of rural areas is independent of the framework of protected natural areas and requires the application of agricultural policies that are more respectful and favorable towards the environment. One condition is that our countryside must still continue to be also populated by humans!
Large raptors and mountain species
Raptors are generally less threatened than two decades ago, especially Mediterranean species. Great conservation successes in progress: Imperial Eagle, Cinereous Vulture and Bearded Vulture whose situation has recently improved.
For mountain species, the situation is worrying, often because of climate change, the main effect of which is to reduce the availability of habitat at high altitudes.
The shock of common species
Recent studies have shown significant drops in the numbers of the most common species in Europe and North America. Spain is no exception with a loss of almost 100 million birds of the 100 most common species over the past thirty years. The result is all the more tragic when we know that most forest species show a positive trend. Among the very common bird species, a real slap awaits us. Of course, species linked to agricultural environments, but not only …
One of the biggest surprises comes with the Kingfisher, classified as endangered (EN). All in all, this is a logical consequence for this species because, of course, biologists have noted for a long time the often deplorable state of river ecosystems and of the Spanish ichthyofauna. As a personal anecdote, at the beginning of the 2000s, the presence of the kingfisher in the annexes of the Habitat Directive was the subject of a joke on these poor Belgian ornithologists who decidedly had little to protect, compared to our great eagles, etc. . And here we are, 20 years later, plagued by the same disease.
Other well-known and endangered species: Common kestrel (EN), Jackdaw (EN), Barn swallow (VU), Common swift (VU), Scops owl (VU), synanthropic species that have benefited in the past to live close to human communities.
The case of the Red partridge (VU) is particularly strained by the potential legal implications and possible regulations of a hunting species. Note the importance of partridges and wild rabbits for the conservation of large predators in Mediterranean ecosystems.
Among the nearly endangered species (NT), some very common birds await us: Tree sparrow, Barn owl, Little owl, Zitting cisticola and even Common chiffchaff. The first three are synanthropes from rural areas and the last two represent insectivorous passerines. We ask ourselves the question: if even the Common chiffchaff is almost threatened … then, what future for the Iberian avifauna?
Deficient territorial policies
This Red Book offers a remarkable source of information on the avifauna of Spain. Birds are the best studied group of all Spanish fauna and occupy a large number of habitats. Their state of conservation alerts us to the state of conservation of ecosystems and the policies to be put in place. The interest shown in birds should not make us forget the importance of all biodiversity as well as the need to conserve many sites which are not necessarily of ornithological interest.
Reintroduction programs. 1) The debate is open on the advisability of continuing or initiating costly hacking programs for large raptors. 2) Two species considered regionally extinct: the Bald ibis, with a small re-introduced population but still considered non-viable on its own. And above all, the discreet and unknown Common buttonquail, a species apparently easy to breed in captivity and which should benefit from a program in view of the negative evolution of the populations of the Maghreb.
The species of the Red Book (technical document) could integrate the Catálogo Español de Especies Amenazadas (document with legal value). The implications are very strong since all the municipalities in Spain would be affected by the most common endangered species. Nevertheless, let us remember that to date, only 33% of endangered species (Red List) are concerned by conservation plans (Spanish Catálogo) and that, moreover, many regions have still not established these mandatory plans for all. the species present in their territory. In short, very few species are protected on paper; and when they are, they are often left to their fate.