On this episode of Ecolution, we've decided to look up. Because our feathered friends are in trouble.

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How often do any of us get a chance to see the truly wild? The places and creatures who have yet to be tamed? My guess is you'd say not very often. But one thing we almost take for granted, the wild things that share our parks, gutters and gardens most visibly, are our birds.

Birds are one of the most visible, and audible members of the biosphere that surround us. During lockdown the anthropause (a global reduction in modern human activity, during the Covid-19 pandemic) saw countless people talking about clearer skies and hearing birds clearly for the first time in years. But, that chorus is one who’s numbers are dwindling - alarmingly so.

But there are people dedicating their lives, and whatever free time they have, to spend watching, counting and helping the birds of Ireland.

Today we feature Niamh Fitzgerald of Birdwatch Ireland, the National Organiser of the Irish Wetland Bird Survey who talks bird life across the country when we meet on Bull Island. We send intrepid Cub Reporters, Sadhbh and Rosa to Kilkenny castle to meet with Pat and Mary Durkin with Ian McCullough, Birdwatch Ireland volunteers and keen birders who have spent years charting changes in the winged population. And Lorcán Scott, the Wildlife Officer for Heritage Council, Kilkenny. Plus, our brain trust of young naturalists give their thoughts on birds and what they mean to them.

Those spaces we use for agriculture, our countryside and the forests that we use for recreation might once have rung to the sound of birdsong. But the last 30 years have seen a marked change.

Every four years, the World Birds Report is published by BirdLife International. And the most recent publication was just a few weeks back. It's findings are deeply troubling.

Birdwatch Ireland shared the fact that 25% of Irish birds are showing a severe decline in numbers. And we can add an additional 37% showing moderate declines.

When we zoom out to a global scale, the picture isn't any better. Currently, almost half of bird species worldwide are in decline, with just 6% increasing. Things are so bad that one in eight bird species globally is currently threatened with extinction.

From Habitat Loss to Avian flu, further incursion by man into the few wild spaces that remain in Ireland and the ever increasing threat of the Climate Crisis, the picture for bird life is looking bleak.

Rosa and Sadhbh are our reporters in the wild.

The saddest thing is that often, these losses aren't easy to spot. Shifting baseline syndrome is used to describe a change in our perception; that we can only know what we’re losing when we know what we’ve had. Extinction happens by degrees and it’s hard to talk about absence and the loss of bird life when we never knew they existed in the first place.

What we know as normal for nature is different from our parents' experience. And even more different from our grandparents. Birds have gone extinct in our lifetimes. But, if they were never in your consciousness, how would you know that they were missing at all?

Birds are a vital cog in the great machine of biodiversity. And one that’s clearly in need of attention. The losses might be hard to notice. As one bird type disappears another can grow in numbers to take that space. But narrow as it may seem, we do have a window to make a difference.

Ecolution was produced and written by Nicky Coghlan. With edit assistance from Aoife O'Neill. And it was presented by Evie Kenny.

Further reading

1. BirdLife State of the World's Birds Report

2. BirdWatch Ireland Birds of Conservation Concern in Ireland assessment 2021

3. Meaning of Birds of Conservation Concern red and amber status: Red= severe declines (> 50% over 25 years). Amber = moderate declines (25-49% over 25 years)