The twite is a member of the finch family that has a disjunct global range. One population occurs in eastern Turkey, Tibet and western China, and the second population is over 2,500km away here in north western Europe. It is thought by some that this separation happened at the time of the last glaciation some 10,000 years ago. Twite in Britain and Ireland breed in heather and bracken and their diet comprises almost solely of seeds such as dandelions, sorrel, and thistle.
In Ireland, twite are thought to breed in only five counties. Although never very common in here, 100 year ago, they were said to breed in most coastal counties. This decline in population was highlighted in Breeding Bird Atlas of 1993 where a 50% decline was noted during the previous 20 years. Twite was subsequently listed in the Red Data Book for endangered species in Ireland.
In 2005, with funding from the National Parks and Wildlife Service, we commenced our study to investigate some of the big questions about the life story of the Twite in Ireland. We had lots of questions to be answered such as: What parts of Ireland are most important for twite? Do the twite that breed here also spend the winter here? What can we do to prevent twite from becoming extinct here?
Here is a very brief summary of some of what our research has shown to date:
We estimate that less than 100 pairs of twite breed in Ireland today with most of these birds breeding in north county Mayo and west county Donegal. Here the twite breeds on wild north facing sea-cliffs. The nest site they chose tends to be within at least two kilometres of extensively farmed holdings, particularly with weedy pastures and roadside verges, and some disturbed ground. This shows how important the traditional farming practices of the farmers of north Mayo and west Donegal are to the conservation of the twite in Ireland.
Our colour-ringing studies have shown that most of the twite that breed here also remain for the winter. We did, excitingly, prove a link between Irish and Scottish Twite with a bird ringed in west Donegal during the winter turning up on the Mull of Kintyre, Scotland in autumn.
Overall it is clear that the future of the Twite in Ireland is uncertain. Unfortunately for the Twite its decline, up to now, has gone unnoticed to many but publicity such as 'Back To Nature' will encourage a pride in our lesser known birds and, most important of all, will hopefully lead to their conservation for future generations to enjoy.