20 June 2023

ZSL scientists collaborate on striking art installation to spotlight the threats facing global bird populations 

By Dr Patricia Brekke, Dr John Ewen, Dr Henry Häkkinen and Curator of Birds Gary Ward 

Earlier this year we were approached by artist Jenny Kendler to collaborate on a striking sculpture for The Hayward Gallery’s summer 2023 exhibition Dear Earth: Art and Hope in a Time of Crisis

The sculpture, Birds Watching, depicts the eyes of 27 species of birds, many of which are threatened or even Extinct-in-the-Wild. From Atlantic puffins to the New Zealand hihi, Birds Watching brings home the widespread impacts of climate change and other environmental threats on wildlife around the world.  

Inspired by our scientific research - as well as our conservation zoos’ pioneering breeding programmes - Birds Watching demonstrates the breadth of work being undertaken to protect these species and their eco-systems. 

Find out more about the incredible birds featured in Birds Watching and our work to protect their futures at Dear Earth: Art and Hope in a Time of Crisis and see some of them in the flesh at London Zoo’s historic Blackburn Pavilion.  

Two blue-crowned laughingthrushes in a tree
An Atlantic puffin flying above the ocean.
Two blue-crowned laughingthrushes and an Atlantic puffin

The Birds 

Blue-crowned laughingthrush (Pterorhinus courtoisi) - critically endangered  

Across the Jiangxi province of south-eastern China, the blue-crowned laughingthrush was known for its striking colours and beautiful song. Sadly, due to habitat loss and the wide-spread pet trade, there are now thought to be less than 350 Blue-crowned laughingthrushes left in the wild – they are classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species.  

The Zoological Society of London, the international conservation charity behind London Zoo and Whipsnade Zoo, have worked to protect the blue-crowned laughingthrush both in China and in the UK. ZSL has supported in-situ PhD research into the conservation of the species, while also breeding the species at its two conservation zoos as part of vital global breeding programmes for the species. In June 2022 two critically endangered blue crowned laughingthrush chicks were hand-reared by zookeepers at Whipsnade Zoo. 

Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) - vulnerable  

The iconic Atlantic puffin is among numerous European seabirds at risk from climate change. Research from ZSL found reduced food accessibility and prolonged periods of stormy weather caused by climate change could see 68% of the beloved bird’s nesting sites in Western Europe lost by the end of the century. 

Researchers from ZSL and the University of Cambridge have published a first-of-its-kind conservation guide to protecting the 47 species that breed along the Atlantic coastline, including the Atlantic puffin, offering hope for the future of these important marine birds. 

The two-year project to create the guidelines gathered evidence from more than 80 conservationists and policymakers across 15 European countries, alongside carefully collated information available from scientific papers across 10 different languages. 

Pink pigeon in Mauritius
A Socorro dove at London Zoo
A pink pigeon and a Socorro dove

Pink pigeon (Nesoenas mayeri) - vulnerable  

Before the introduction of predators and an abrupt loss of its habitat, the pink pigeon was once abundant on the Indian Ocean Island of Mauritius. 

By the 1970s, the remaining population were restricted to a tiny pocket of the island, with the remaining dozen birds at risk of being lost forever.  

Thankfully, an international bird conservation programme stepped in, successfully boosting numbers to the 400 pink pigeons in the wild today. ZSL remain involved in the project's ongoing recovery programme providing expertise in Mauritius, while also supporting through breeding and rearing at London Zoo as part of the European breeding programme for the species. 

Socorro dove (Zenaida graysoni) - extinct in the wild   

These small brown birds were once endemic to the island of Socorro, off the coast of Mexico. Having evolved on such an isolated island, the dove was wiped out when invasive species were introduced into the ecosystem - the doves lacked the instinct to escape new predators, including cats, while grazing sheep caused the degradation of their habitat, depleting food supplies.   

 Socorro doves are now classified as extinct in the wild and exist only in conservation zoos across Europe and America, including London Zoo. ZSL is working closely with the Mexican government and other partners to plan the potential re-introduction of the species to their native home. 

Northern bald ibis
Male hihi bird on a branch
© Abi Low
A Northern bald ibis and a hihi

Northern bald ibis (Geronticus eremita) - endangered   

Once widespread across southern Europe and Northern Africa, the wild Northern bald ibis population is now reduced to one small area in Morocco’s Souss-Massa National Park. 

The distinctive looking birds, with a bare red face, neck and throat, are threatened by pesticides, habitat loss and hunting for their chicks and eggs. It is estimated only 700 of the birds now survive in the wild. 

Ranked number 69 on ZSL’s EDGE of Existence list for birds, the northern bald ibis is part of the European Endangered Species Programme (EEP) preserving a genetically diverse population of the species in conservation zoos. In 2021, four northern bald ibis, hatched at London Zoo in 2019, travelled to Southern Spain, where they were released into the huge agricultural area of La Janda. 

Hihi (Notiomystis cincta) - vulnerable  

The Hihi is a small sexually dimorphic bird from New Zealand. Hihi feed on feed on nectar, fruit and invertebrates, and their common ‘tzit tzit’ sounding call is believed be the reason for their other name, the stitchbird.  

Hihi are especially vulnerable to changes in habitat and following the European colonisation of New Zealand, the mainland hihi population was wiped out. The species managed to cling on in this single island population for a century, until the 1980s when a reintroduction program was initiated by the New Zealand government and local community groups. ZSL joined the hihi recovery team in 2005 and since then, ZSL have helped establish a further five reintroduced populations. 

Unfortunately, hihi are still at risk from the effects of climate change as they cannot advance their reproduction fast enough to keep up with warming spring temperatures. ZSL continues to research new conservation management practices to offer the hihi a viable future. 

Sihek Guam Kingfisher © John Ewen, ZSL
© John Ewen, ZSL

Sihek (Todiramphus cinnamominus) - extinct in the wild 

The sihek’s native island of Guam became overrun by 2 million invasive brown tree snakes when shipping containers unwittingly carried them onto the island in the 1940s. The snakes decimated the island’s native wildlife and most native birds were lost from the wild, knocking their ecosystem off balance.  

Siheks have been extinct in the wild for over thirty years, but through careful research ZSL is working to restore their population. For now, Guam remains unsuitable for sihek reintroduction despite ongoing snake management efforts, so ZSL are instead creating a new home on small neighbouring islands, to recover populations whilst Guam's ecosystem is restored.   

Unfortunately, sea level rise, an increased frequency of droughts, typhoons, and flooding caused by climate change have great impact on wild bird populations, reducing their habitats and changing many delicate island ecosystems. 

European shag (Gulosus aristotelis)

A coastal diving species, the European shag typically forages around kelp beds in northern Europe and relies heavily on herring and sand eels for food. European shags are not waterproof like many other seabirds and are relatively non-buoyant. These adaptations assist the species on their deep dives but can make them vulnerable to the increasingly stormy winters occurring in northern Europe, prompted by climate change.  

The European shag population in countries exposed to a high frequency of winter storms are now declining rapidly. In these areas mass mortality events have become frequent and it is estimated the severe storm season in 2012/13 killed over half of Scotland’s shags. 

ZSL has been collaborating with conservation researchers, practitioners and policy-makers across Europe to assess climate change vulnerability for seabirds in Europe, and form conservation strategies to build resilience and recovery capacity. 

  • There are many ways to support ZSL’s vital work protecting and restoring threatened species, and the ecosystems they rely on.   

  • To visit London Zoo, purchase tickets or membership here - each visit supports our work.  

  • Find out more about Birds Watching at The Hayward Gallery.