A tiny but noisy subtropical songbird could threaten Britain’s morning chorus of native species like robins, warblers and blackbirds, experts have warned.
They say the red-billed leiothrix may be emerging as a new invasive species in the UK – and could soon become as prominent as Ring-necked parakeets in gardens, parks and woodland.
The numbers of these birds have increased rapidly since they were introduced to Britain in the 1970s.
Ornithologists fear that the highly invasive red-billed leiothrix, native to humid forests in subtropical Asia, may already be establishing itself in southern England.
A new study found that most sightings have occurred in Wiltshire and Somerset, although the bird has also been sighted in Merseyside and Wales.
It has sparked fears that the species, also known as the Peking robin and Japanese nightingale, may soon be establishing itself in the wild.
Invasive: The tiny but noisy red-billed leiothrix (pictured) could threaten Britain’s morning chorus of native species like robins and blackbirds, experts have warned
IMPORTANT FACTS ABOUT THE REDSPEED LEIOTHRIX
Native: Subtropical Asia, including southern China and the Himalayas
Looks: Bright red bill, yellow-orange neck and olive green head and gray back
Song: Melodious and comparable to the UK native blackbird and robin
Size: Approximately 5.5 inches (14 cm) long
Meal: fruits, seeds and insects
Also known as: Peking robin and Japanese nightingale
For more than a century, the red-billed leiothrix was brought to the UK as a popular cage bird, along with parakeets, until this was banned in 2005.
A new study led by the UK Center for Ecology and Hydrology (UKCEH) suggests the bird may have escaped from captivity, but it’s not known if it breeded in the wild.
In the last 20 years the population has doubled in Europe and it has become established in France, Spain, Italy and Portugal.
The charismatic bird has a bright red beak, yellow-orange throat and olive-green head and gray back, and its melodious song is comparable to that of the resident blackbird, robin or blackcap.
Researchers collated reports on social media and Google and found 16 sightings in southern England since 2019.
UKCEH ecologist Dr. Richard Broughton, who led the study, said it was likely an underestimate of the population.
He added: “If the red-billed leiothrix establishes itself in the UK, they could soon be a familiar sight in our gardens, parks and woodland as their rich singing is transforming the morning chorus as we know it today.
“Our study is the first-ever assessment of this species in the UK and raises awareness that the birds have been sighted in the UK.
This map shows the 10 Red-billed Leiothrix sightings in Wiltshire and Somerset between 2019 and 2021. Circles denote a single record and squares denote two records at the same location. The inset shows the other sightings across the UK including Brecon in Wales and the Wirral
The species is native to southern China and the Himalayas, and when established elsewhere, the birds have become a common and dominant member of the wild bird community
|05/30/2020||Salisbury Plains, Wiltshire||scrubland|
|03/03/2021||Virgin Bradley, Wiltshire||Garden|
|06/16/2021||South East England||Garden|
“The potential for the red-billed leiothrix to settle here seemed very small, but the accumulation of records in southern England suggests that we need to take it seriously as a potentially new invasive species.”
Experts warn that milder winters brought on by climate change will make it easier for the red-billed leiothrix to establish and disperse in this country, while the proliferation of bird feeders in Britain’s gardens would give it a reliable food source to keep around bring through bad winters and weather.
The species is native to southern China and the Himalayas, and when established elsewhere, the birds have become a common and dominant member of the wild bird community.
Ecologists worry that they will compete with native birds like robins for habitat, habitat and food, and potentially harm their populations.
However, the new study makes it clear that more research is needed to determine the longer-term effects of their introduction.
dr Broughton says monitoring the red-billed leiothrix in the UK will be crucial to determining its prevalence in that country and asked the public to report sightings via the British Trust for Ornithology’s BirdTrack app or the iRecord app.
He added that the bird was “beautiful” but warned that “non-native species are never a good thing”.
The new study was published in the specialist journal Ibis.
WHY DO BIRDS SING?
Birds use their voices to communicate with other birds.
Sharp tunes are an efficient way to communicate over long distances, especially if you’re small and live in dense habitats like rainforests.
Most bird species use specific calls to identify themselves and notify of a nearby threat.
Birdsong is a special type of call used by many species to help them mate.
Birdsong is almost exclusively a male activity and helps the singer show that he is fit, healthy and ready to reproduce.