Great white egret

All Change: 150 Years of Bird Colonists

Over the last 150 years a number of bird species have begun breeding in the UK either for the first time ever or the first time in many years. Some of these have been introduced by man, deliberately or accidentally. Others got here under their own steam. Many of our most recent arrivals are almost certainly able to breed here only because of climate change. So, who are these recent bird colonists, and how did they get here?

A Helping Hand

Man has been bringing new birds to the UK for a very long time. The Normans, for example, likely introduced pheasants from Asia as early as the 12th century. It wasn’t until the 1800s, though, that their popularity as a gamebird led to their becoming widespread. A number of other gamebirds followed, including red-legged partridge. It is estimated that these two species alone now make up a quarter of the avian biomass of the UK. Some of our wildfowl species, meanwhile, arrived via escapes from ornamental collections over the last 400 years. Canada goose, Egyptian goose, Mandarin duck and gadwall all established themselves in this way.

Little Owl
Little owls have been breeding in the UK since 1879

The little owl is a more recent addition to the UK. A few landowners made unsuccessful attempts to introduce them from mainland Europe in the first half of the 19th century. The first successful introduction was by Edmund Meade-Waldo in Kent. He released 40 birds over 6 years into his parkland in Kent. In 1879, the first pair bred, and further releases soon led to the species’ spread across England. Because they don’t seem to compete with other species and fill their own ecological niche, most people have welcomed them. In fact, there is so much affection for this charismatic owl that conservation efforts have begun to halt its decline here, despite its being non-native.

Ring-necked parakeet bird colonists
There are some great urban myths about how ring-necked parakeets arrived here

Nowhere near as popular, the ring-necked or rose-ringed parakeet has been a noisy presence in the south-east of England since the 1970s. They are now spreading to other parts of the UK. Its natural range is a band from west Africa through to India. Birds in the UK originate from escaped or deliberately released pets. Although there have probably been free-flying birds here since Victorian times, the first confirmed breeding was in 1969. There have been some brilliant urban myths about how they got to the UK. These include stories about Jimi Hendrix releasing a pair and birds escaping from the London set of the African Queen, both sadly untrue. Although some people see them as a noisy pest, partly because they can form large flocks, the jury is still out on whether these colonists are detrimental to native wildlife.

Natural Colonisers

Some of our recent arrivals got here all by themselves. The collared dove is undoubtedly one of the most successful of these and has a remarkable story. They are so ubiquitous that many people might not even realise they have only been breeding in the UK since 1955. As a child in the 1970s, I certainly assumed they had always been here and would have taken its presence for granted. The species originated in India and had spread as far as Turkey by the 16th century. It wasn’t until the 20th century, though, that its range expansion accelerated. Between 1930 and 1960 it spread from Hungary across Europe to our shores. Scientists still aren’t entirely sure why this happened so quickly when it did. They are now present across the UK, including Shetland, and only absent from the uplands.

Collared dove
The collared dove spread naturally to the UK

Two of our seabirds have also colonised naturally. Although present on the isolated St Kilda archipelago, fulmars bred nowhere else in the UK until 1878 when they arrived on Foula, Shetland. From here, they spread southwards and by the 1930s were breeding in England. They now breed as far south as Brittainy in France. It is possible they were able to expand their range due to an increase of fish discards by trawlers during the 20th century.

Fulmar bird colonists
Fulmars have spread as far south as Brittany

Despite their name, Mediterranean gulls were once only found around the Black Sea and the very eastern fringes of the Mediterranean. They began spreading west in the 1950s and reached the Low Countries in the 1960s and 70s. The species bred in the UK intermittently from 1968 and then properly established itself in the 1980s. About 700 pairs now breed here spread across colonies in the south of England. Birds can be seen further north in winter.

A Trio of Egrets

Some of the most noticeable changes to our bird populations over the last few decades have come at our wetlands. Three egret species now breed in the UK, with the little egret the pioneer. Although some suspect this beautiful white heron bred here historically, there isn’t a consensus on this. What is certain is that sightings of wintering birds began to gradually increase in the 1950s as French populations recovered from earlier overhunting for their plumes. Restricted to southern Europe for some time, our warming climate has also almost certainly helped them to spread north. The first successful breeding here came in 1996. They now breed as far north as Anglesey but can be seen almost anywhere in the winter. Incredibly, they have also crossed the Atlantic, reaching the Caribbean and east coast of the USA.

Little egret bird colonists
Little egrets have now become commonplace in much of the UK

The smaller cattle egret has been breeding in the UK more intermittently since 2008. Large wintering flocks have periodically turned up and some of those birds have stayed to breed. Although not yet classed as established breeders, it is surely only a matter of time. Large flocks are seen in Somerset at most times of the year. Breeding has occurred in Somerset, Cheshire, Essex, Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire. The species has also expanded extremely quickly across the Americas following its arrival in South America in the late 1800s. It has a beautiful peach hue to its breast and head feathers in the breeding season. As its name suggests, it is often found running around the feet of cattle, looking for invertebrates.

Cattle egrets
Cattle egrets can form large flocks

Great egrets arrived following an expansion west and north from eastern Europe. This large white bird bred for the first time in 2012 on the Somerset Levels. In a very short space of time, they have gone from being a ‘twitchable’ bird, one rare enough to warrant a long journey to see, to fairly commonplace and liable to turn up anywhere. Indeed, in 2021, the rare bird news reporting service Birdguides even stopped reporting them as there were so many. The Levels are still their breeding heartland here, with 15 nests located across 2 reserves in 2021. They have also bred in Norfolk and Cheshire, however, and have even reached Scandinavia. Again, climate change is almost certainly a big factor in this spread, as well as increased protection from the feather trade.

Great white egret bird colonists
Great white egrets are as big as grey herons

The Return of Absent Friends

Two wetland species that disappeared from the UK in the late Middle Ages have now tentatively returned after an absence of 300 years or more. The four-foot-tall common crane was extremely popular with hunters and, although hard to imagine, as a target for falconry birds. This, combined with intensive land drainage led to their extinction by about 1600. Miraculously, three birds turned up in Norfolk in 1979 and, despite early breeding failures, have managed to establish a small East Anglian population. The Great Crane Project then released a total of 93 hand-reared birds on the Somerset Levels between 2010 and 2014. Birds have since bred in Yorkshire and in Aberdeenshire and 64 pairs were recorded across the UK in 2020. In addition, a project hoping to reintroduce cranes to the Cairngorms is in its early stages.

White storks, whose history in the UK is very similar to that of cranes, are also being reintroduced at a rewilding project in Sussex.

Common cranes bird colonists
Common cranes were popular on the menu at feasts in the Middle Ages

Spoonbills suffered a similar fate, with hunting and wetland drainage leading to their disappearance as a breeding bird by the mid-1660s. These exotic-looking birds were never as common or widespread as cranes but had populations as far west as Pembrokeshire. East Anglia held the biggest numbers. And it was East Anglia that recorded the first successful modern breeding attempt, with birds almost certainly recolonising from the Netherlands. A small colony has been at Holkham in Norfolk since 2010 and spoonbills bred in Suffolk and Yorkshire in 2020 and Essex in 2021. Habitat restoration has played a huge role in both these birds being able to return to the UK. It also helped two more wetland birds, the avocet and the bittern, to re-establish themselves after shorter absences from the country.

Spoonbills use their unusual bills to sift through water for food

Baby Steps

The last 20 years has seen a number of successful breeding attempts by a pair of southern European birds, although neither are regular breeders as yet. Despite breeding in Sussex in 1955, European bee-eaters did not manage to breed successfully again until 2002 in County Durham. These colonial nesters then bred on the Isle of Wight in 2014, Cumbria in 2015, Nottinghamshire in 2017 and in Norfolk this year, 2022. Truly exotic in appearance, bee-eaters turn up in the UK most years as migration overshoots. The increase in breeding attempts, though, could be a sign that perhaps they will establish themselves here as temperatures rise. Whether insect declines in this country limit food availability too much may determine whether they do or not.

Bee eater bird colonists
This bee eater was in Spain, part of its more natural range

Black-winged stilts, a slim, long-legged wader, has also been breeding here more frequently since 2014. Sites in Kent, Sussex, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Yorkshire have hosted pairs. As with bee-eaters, climate change is likely to be one reason odd pairs are heading to the UK to breed. This might not just be because the UK is now warm enough for them, but also because conditions are becoming too dry on the continent.

Black-winged stilt
Stilts are slender long-legged waders

And these species are not alone in finding Britain more favourable in recent years. Purple heron bred in Kent in 2010 and black-crowned night heron in Somerset in 2017. There are also suspicions that little bittern has bred a few times between 2010 and 2019, although this notoriously secretive bird is hard to monitor. Glossy ibis has flirted with breeding in 2014 and 2016 but laid no eggs. All these wetland species have crossed from the continent, with climate change leading to dryer conditions there and warmer conditions here probably involved in the moves.

The Shape of Things to Come

Some of our bird colonists of the last 150 years have become so every day that many of us hardly even notice their presence. A few are welcome returnees after an absence of hundreds of years. However, some of the latest additions to our breeding bird species, while beautiful and exciting to see, are a worrying sign that all is not as it should be. The egrets, stilts and bee-eaters that are increasingly choosing to breed here can only do so because of climate change. This is a combination of more favourable conditions here, and less favourable ones in their normal range.

As temperatures continue to rise, we may see even more bird colonists arrive, and any excitement will surely be outweighed by what this means for the future of our planet.

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