Declines, disease and dangers – the issues facing birds

Find out more about some of the most pressing threats affecting wild birds and how you can help.

A lone Turtle Dove sat amongst green foliage.
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Are UK birds in decline?

Yes. There has been a serious decline in the numbers of many birds, including the Song Thrush, Skylark, Lapwing and House Sparrow. This decline has been gradual. Most of the declining species are farmland birds. Woodland species like Blue Tit, Nuthatch and Great Spotted Woodpecker are still on the Green list of least conservation concern. Declines may have started in woodland habitat also, with Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Willow Tit now red-listed because of their severe declines. 

A lone Skylark stood in the grass looking to the side.

Why are UK birds declining?  

The latest research suggests that intensive farming practices, particularly an increase in pesticides and fertiliser use is main driver of most bird population declines. Our latest State of Nature report lifts the lid on the causes of UK bird declines. Click the link below to read the full report. 

State of Nature 2023

How much have they declined?  

House Sparrows, Starlings and Skylarks are some of the worst-affected birds. But the overall picture for birds is just as concerning – since 1980, one out of every six birds has been lost. That adds up to the loss of 600 million breeding birds over 40 years, according to a 2021 study from the RSPB, BirdLife International and the Czech Society for Ornithology.  

Policies affecting UK birds

Changes in farming practices have had a devastating effect on farmland birds. It can seem hard to believe that farming could impact birds in suburban and urban areas. But, as around 70% of the UK is farmland, what happens there will affect birds in all habitats. Especially as, in most cases, urban and suburban bird populations are an overspill from the countryside.  

Today, we understand more about the causes of these bird declines.  

We are working to devise new management techniques to reverse the downward trend and benefit farmland birds.  

New Environmental Land Management Schemes are a step in the right direction, breaking the link between subsidies and production. We think the new policies will help to make a significant difference for farmland wildlife. 


Not seen any Swallows this spring? Are the Blue Tits missing from your bird table? Not spotted any Starlings swooping about? It's worrying when birds seem to have disappeared from your garden or local area.  

But there are often perfectly natural reasons for this, rather than something sinister at work. Anything from the season and changes in the weather to the amount of nuts and seeds available in the countryside can affect the type of birds coming into your garden.  

A Tree Sparrow perched on a lichen covered branch.

How does the weather affect birds?

The weather changes how birds behave – a bit like how we might head to the park on a sunny day or watch a film indoors on a rainy one. But for birds, the impact of weather can be even more extreme.  

Cold winters can kill a lot of birds through starvation. The smaller the bird, the more likely it is to be affected by long periods of cold weather. The amount of food available in May and June is a key factor in deciding how many chicks survive to fly the nest.  

An especially poor breeding season can lead to lower numbers of birds the following season. After a bad season, you might see fewer birds in your garden. Most songbirds take a couple of years to recover from a particularly bad breeding season. 

Many birds do die through starvation in winter, but it’s only if freezing temperatures continue during the daytime and nighttime for several days in a row that there's a likelihood that lots of birds will die. 

Changes in winter weather often cause changes in the amount of birds on feeders, these don’t necessarily follow a pattern that makes sense to us humans.  

A lone Wren stood on a log covered in green, yellow and red moss.


One of the major threats facing waterfowl and seabirds are recent outbreaks of avian flu. For more information and advice, head to our dedicated avian flu page.  

There are other illnesses birds face, including Trichomonosis, avian pox and salmonella. To better understand the diseases affecting wild birds, we are collaborating on research and monitoring with other organisations. 

Monitoring diseases 

Most of the time, we collaborate on research and monitoring into garden bird diseases with other organisations.  

Our partners have included Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) in a project called Garden Bird Health initiative (GBHi).  

GBHi identified the emergence and followed the spread and intensity of both trichomonosis in finches and avian pox in tits, and revealed the importance of disease in the significant decline of the Greenfinch population in the UK.  

The GBHi was very successful, and it has now been expanded to Garden Wildlife Health (GWH) project to monitor illness and causes of death in amphibians, reptiles and hedgehogs in British gardens, in addition to continuing our valuable work investigating causes of garden bird disease.  

GWH is a partnership between the RSPB, ZSL, BTO and Froglife, and funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare, the Garfield Weston Foundation, Defra and the Welsh government, 

This important work cannot be done without your help. Thanks to the thousands of people who have contacted us when they have found sick or dead birds in their garden, we know what’s happening and where. 


Stranded seabirds 

What to do if you find a stranded seabird 
Strong gales can blow seabirds like Gannets, Fulmars, Storm Petrels, Manx Shearwaters and Little Auks inland, leaving them stranded. The most likely time of year to find seabirds stranded inland is during the autumn, when large numbers of them are on the move around our coasts. Stranded seabirds are usually tired and disoriented and often need help. 

The RSPB does not run bird hospitals or a rescue service, so we are unable to help stranded seabirds. Instead, contact the RSPCA (England and Wales), SSPCA (Scotland) and USPCA (Northern Ireland), who can advise on wildlife welfare matters. You can also find an independent local rescue centre on the Help Wildlife website.  

 A group of Mute Swans with the one in the middle covered in oil.