Asian songbird could change Britain's dawn chorus

Sightings of the red-billed leiothrix in Wiltshire and Somerset could indicate a potential threat to our native songbirds.

Red-billed Leiothrix with yellow chest and red fringed feathers
Published: June 8th, 2022 at 11:12 am
The familiar chorus of robins, blackbirds and warblers at the crack of dawn is one of Britain's most beloved spring spectacles, but it could be about to change.
According to a study led by the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, there have been sightings of the red-billed leiothrix, a small songbird from subtropical Asia, in southern England.
The bird – olive green with a bright red beak and yellow throat – has a melodious song comparable to the blackbird, robin or blackcap. It has been sighted in Wiltshire and Somerset, and if their numbers continue to increase they could pose a threat to the UK's native bird species.
UKCEH ecologist Dr Richard Broughton says of the findings, "If the red-billed leiothrix becomes established in Britain, they could soon be a familiar sight in our gardens, parks and woodland, with their rich song altering the dawn chorus as we know it today."
Red-billed Leiothrix perched on twigs in Wiltshire countryside in 2021
Red-billed Leiothrix, Wiltshire 2021./Credit: A & F Roche
Like the parakeet, whose numbers have increased in Britain since the 1970s, the red-billed leiothrix are kept as cage birds and may have escaped or been released into the wild. Originating from southern China, its populations are already well established in France, Spain, Portugal and Spain; its spread aided by milder winters as a result of climate change.
"The potential for the red-billed leiothrix to become established here had seemed very low," explains Dr Broughton. "But the cluster of records in southern England suggest we need to take it seriously as a potentially new invasive species."

Have you spotted the red-billed leiothrix?

While there are concerns that the leiothrix may compete with native birds for habitat and food, the study suggests that more research is needed to establish the longer-term effects of their introduction to the UK.
In the meantime the UKCEH is calling on the public to help monitor numbers of the red-billed leiothrix and record sightings via the British Trust for Ornithology's BirdTrack app or the iRecord app.

Authors

Abigail is a freelance writer and editor based in Hereford.

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