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Red List changes: Hope and heartbreak for the world’s birds

Red List
Guam Rail is no longer considered extinct in the wild. Photo © Greg Hume (Creative Commons)

The latest update of the international Red List of Threatened Species is both hopeful and heartbreaking for the world’s birds, including birds of the United States.

In the new assessment, released Tuesday, December 10, BirdLife International updated the threat status for 59 bird species worldwide. Rankings improved for 35 of them and worsened for 24. The most disheartening news comes for three species declared extinct: Brazil’s Cryptic Treehunter and Alagoas Foliage-gleaner, and Hawaii’s Poo-uli. The last known Poo-uli died in 2004.

Spix’s Macaw has been classified as Extinct in the Wild. Photo © Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation

Another species, Spix’s Macaw, was reclassified as extinct in the wild; it was last confirmed in the wild in the year 2000 but numbers over 100 individuals in captivity. (Low genetic diversity in the remaining birds poses a long-term challenge, but nevertheless, a reintroduction program in the macaw’s native Brazil is in the works.)

Climate change has contributed to the declines of many birds (and other wildlife), including Dominica’s national bird, the Imperial Parrot (also known as Imperial Amazon). While hurricanes naturally occur in the Caribbean, their increased frequency and intensity result in high bird mortality and habitat destruction, alongside devastating impacts on people. The parrot species declined from Endangered to Critically Endangered after Hurricane Maria in 2017, the strongest hurricane on record to have struck the island. Fewer than 50 mature individuals are estimated to be in the wild.

Gurney’s Pitta. Photo by Michael Gillam from Phuket, Thailand/Creative Commons

Two other species have also been downgraded from Endangered to Critically Endangered. One is Gurney’s Pitta, a striking forest-dwelling songbird from Myanmar that has lost 70 percent of its population in just 13 years, and the other is Brazil’s Banded Cotinga, which numbers fewer than 250 birds.

Black Rail, a species with scattered populations in the U.S. and throughout the Americas, was downgraded from Near Threatened to Endangered. The small rail lives in saline, brackish, and freshwater marsh habitats, wet meadows and savanna, coastal prairies, and impoundments, making it difficult to detect. Nevertheless, surveys show declines of 90 percent in some parts of its range. Under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, the rail’s eastern subspecies is proposed to be listed as threatened, a status it has held since October 2018.

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Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall is the editor of BirdWatching magazine and You can reach him at

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