The decline of the kittiwake

Kittiwakes are my favourite gulls – they are delicate, small gulls with a yellow bill and a red gape. The UK is home to around 8% of the global population of kittiwakes. Perhaps their most characteristic feature is their call – kitti – waak which of course defines their name. My second job early on in my career was as warden of the RSPB’s St Bee’s Head reserve in Cumbria which held a good colony of kittiwakes.

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Kittiwake on the Farne Islands

Kittiwakes are however now in big trouble.  Numbers fell 23% between the 1985-88 survey and the 1998-2002 one (539,645 to 415,995 pairs) and 63% declines at regularly monitored colonies between 1986 and 2014. As a result  they have now been ‘red – listed’ in the most recent review of UK birds of conservation concern. The majority of large kittiwake colonies are in the north of Britain. A paper has now been written which details the decline of the kittiwake in Southern Britain – it is published  in the latest edition of British Birds (volume 109 pp199-210 by Thalassa McMurdo Hamilton, Andy Brown and Leigh Lock). Since the 1985-88 survey 58% of the colonies in southern Britain have been abandoned and where they have survived they have declined by 66%.

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On their breeding ledges

These are dramatic losses and show that the species is in real trouble.

Kittiwake declinesThis map from the British Birds paper shows the specific declines in southern Britain

The reasons for these declines are not fully understood but appear to be linked to food availability, perhaps disturbance and predation and perhaps also to climate change (kittiwakes in southern Britain are approaching the southern edge of their global range).

There is however one colony on the Isles of Scilly next to the Turk’s Head on St Agnes which appears to be bucking this trend and is increasing.

If these declines continue the species might be virtually extinct in southern Britain within a decade. As the authors of the paper suggest more monitoring of colonies is required along with research into kittiwake productivity.

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A juvenile kittiwake