Out of the darkness: getting bird species off the critical list

The IUCN Red List category of a number of bird species occurring in Seychelles was recently revised.

In 2005, Seychelles Magpie-robin and Seychelles White-eye were all downlisted from Critically Endangered to Endangered. This is momentous news for conservation. It shows that conservation of birds and wider biodiversity is working, in the context of a global backdrop of widespread species declines and even extinctions. Stuart Butchart of the BirdLife International office in Cambridge, UK, explains how conservation status is worked out. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List criteria are complex and subtle, and it is BirdLife’s role as the Red Listing Authority to ensure that they are applied in a consistent fashion for all species worldwide, especially where incomplete information is involved. BirdLife also works closely with groups carrying out assessments for other taxa, to ensure that there is consistency at a higher taxonomic level too.
Seychelles scops owl chick in nest © Dave Currie

The IUCN Red List is widely considered to be the most objective and authoritative listing of species in terms of their extinction risk. It uses criteria based on population size, population trend and range size, with quantitative thresholds to assign species to Red List categories - Critically Endangered, Endangered, etc.

Responsibility for carrying out the evaluations and providing detailed information for all the world’s wild birds rests with BirdLife International, the official Red Listing Authority for birds. As well as supplying the information to IUCN, BirdLife publishes more detailed species factsheets on its website, and these were recently released as a CD-ROM: Threatened birds of the world 2004.

BirdLife carried out thorough reviews of all species in 2000 and 2004, and will repeat these reviews every four years or so. In addition, since 2002, BirdLife has submitted a small number of re-evaluations each year, and these are published in the annual releases of the IUCN Red List. This allows BirdLife to respond to newly published information or recent findings showing that particular species are more or less threatened than previously estimated, without having to wait several years until the next major update.

Since 2002, BirdLife has run discussion forua on the BirdLife website to advertise any proposed revisions to the Red List categories for birds. This provides a mechanism to encourage wide participation in the Red Listing process and to make it transparent and open to all. Anyone with relevant information or opinion on a proposed category change is invited to contribute this through the fora. Forum topics are posted up in regional for a, such as Africa, and taxonomic-based for a, such as parrots, throughout the year. Reminders are regularly sent out to encourage input. The information contributed is synthesised and analysed in January and February each year, and a draft list of proposed revisions is posted up in February, with a final chance for comments before the deadline for final decisions in March.

Revised documentation and evaluations are supplied to IUCN and released on the BirdLife website at the end of April, and are incorporated into the updated IUCN Red List later in the year. Where information is inadequate to make a decision, topics may be carried over until the next round.

Seychelles Magpie-robin case in brief
Was downlisted in 2005 because its population had exceeded 50 mature individuals for more than five years.

Only a few species have been downlisted as a result of conservation action. The Seychelles Magpie-robin is one, and this terrific achievement, in world conservation terms, is a tribute to the hard work and dedication of all involved in Seychelles.

The Seychelles Scops Owl case in brief
Seychelles Scops-owl was downlisted because to retain it as Critically Endangered there had to be adequate evidence to infer that the species was declining (it previously only qualified as Critically Endangered under criterion C2b). Recently published scientific papers indicated that the balance of evidence showed that the population was likely to be stable (or perhaps even increasing as forests regenerate).

In 2000, the population of Seychelles Scops Owl exceeded 50 mature individuals (the threshold for Critically Endangered status based on population size alone). In 2005 it was therefore downlisted, because, under the IUCN Red List criteria, a species should be downlisted to a category of lower threat when none of the criteria of the higher category have been met for five years or more.

Seychelles White-eye case in brief
Seychelles White-eye was downlisted because recent assessments reveal no evidence for declines in habitat quantity or quality, which had been previously inferred, triggering criterion B1a+b(iii) at the Critically Endangered level. By contrast, discussions on the proposed downlisting of Seychelles Fody from Vulnerable to Near Threatened led to the decision to delay any category change until it is clear that the population translocated to Denis island in February 2004 is self-sustaining. In future, if any new evidence arises to suggest that the Scops Owl population is declining, or the habitat quantity/quality of the White-eye is decreasing, then these species will be assessed again.

Seychelles Fody case in brief
Discussions on the proposed downlisting of Seychelles Fody (pictured here) from Vulnerable to Near Threatened led to the decision to delay any category change until it is clear that the population translocated to Denis island in February 2004 is self-sustaining.

The IUCN Red List categories are simply measures of the relative projected extinction risk of species. They do not necessarily translate directly into conservation priority, which depends on many other considerations, such as local importance, politics, cost and cost-effectiveness of action, public interest, etc. Downlisting a species indicates a change to its projected extinction risk, not a change to its conservation priority.

In 2004, Madagascar Pond Heron (Vulnerable to Endangered), Madagascar Sacred Ibis (newly recognised as a full species and treated as Endangered) and Seychelles Scops Owl (Critically Endangered to Endangered).


Further information

To view the species factsheets and additional data tables visit the datazone at www.birdlife.org. All this information is also available as a CD-ROM: Threatened birds of the world 2004. To request a free copy, or to send updates and corrections, please email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. To contribute to discussions on proposed Red List category changes, click the link to visit the Globally Threatened Bird discussion fora. Full details of the IUCN Red List categories and criteria and guidelines on their application can be found at www.iucnredlist.org.


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