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Climate Change

This tiny gull likes to nest along Ireland's cliffs. It's facing global extinction

Globally, the species is thought to have declined by around 40% since the 1970s.

THE IRISH KITTIWAKE bird has been placed on the world’s most-threatened birds list, as a result of overfishing and climate change.

The Kittiwake is a small cliff-nesting species of gull names for its distinctive “kitt-i-wake” call.

Ireland is home to significant numbers of the Kittiwake species, which breed at colonies around the Irish coast. It has now been considered to be globally threatened, as it was listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species.

The IUCN is the global authority on the status of the natural world and the measures needed to safeguard it.

Globally, the species is thought to have declined by around 40% since the 1970s, leading to its reclassification as “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List.

Nesting Kittiwake numbers have plummeted by 87% on the Orkney and Shetland Islands, and by 96% on the Hebridean island of St Kilda since 2000.

Bird Watch Ireland outlined that overfishing and ocean changes caused by climate change have affected the availability and quality of the Kittiwake’s key prey species, especially sandeels, during the breeding season.

Without sufficient food, Kittiwake colonies in the North Atlantic and Pacific have been struggling to feed their chicks, causing “disastrous” chick survival rates in recent years.

For the adult Kittiwake population, exposure to other threats at sea such as bycatch in fishing gear, pollution, and hunting in the Faroe Islands and Greenland have all contributed to the decline of the bird.

Irish threat

Although there is no national seabird monitoring scheme in Ireland, some colonies, including the Kittiwake, are monitored annually by BirdWatch Ireland staff. Monitoring entails counting the numbers of breeding pairs, how many lay eggs and then seeing how many young they successfully rear.

Dr Stephen Newton, senior seabird conservation office with BirdWatch Ireland, said that there has been a substantial decline in many Kittiwake colonies in Ireland.

“For example, at the key colony on the island of Ireland’s Eye, off Howth in Co Dublin, Kittiwake numbers have declined by 50% over the past 16 years, to just 400 pairs today,” Newton said.

“Kittiwakes need to fledge on average about 0.8 young each year to maintain a stable population. This threshold is not being reached at many colonies, and in turn declines in breeding numbers are now being recorded.”

Bird Watch Ireland noted that the driving force of poor Kittiwake performance in Ireland is not fully known, but poor food supply is certainly a factor.

GPS tracking of several adult Kittiwakes from Dublin showed they were flying to areas close to the Isle of Man and North Wales in their attempts to find food.

“This means they were forced to be away from their nests for significant lengths of time, which gives more opportunity for predators to destroy their eggs and chicks,” BirdWatch Ireland said.

BirdWatch Ireland is calling on the Irish government to allocate more resources to seabird monitoring so that a wider range of colonies can be monitored to see if these results are replicated at other sites.

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