If you’ve ever found yourself questioning whether there’s really a bird called a twite, then you’re not alone. Even Google asks searchers of the term whether they were really looking for information about Twitter.
But yes, there is a bird called a twite. It’s a small member of the finch family, closely related to the linnet, a classic example of a little brown job, and seemingly so insignificant that even some bird watchers have difficulty recalling it.
Unfortunately, its inconspicuousness may be playing a part in its downfall, with conservationists struggling to raise awareness about its plight. Just 12 pairs bred in England this summer which means the species, already on the Red List, is on the brink of extinction in the country.
There are 10 recognised subspecies of twite. Two – L. f. bensonorum and L. f. pipilans – are found in the UK and Northern Ireland, while the nominate race L. f. flavirostris is found in northern Europe breeding in Norway, Sweden, and the very far north-west of Russia. In Sweden the twite is called the vinterhämpling, which means ‘winter linnet’ because it arrives in late autumn, at about the same time common redpolls are moving southwards.
The rest of the population is found in eastern Turkey and north-west Iran, and then Siberia and China. This scattered distribution is probably due the fragmentation of its range during the last Ice Age, about 18,000-20,000 years ago.
The genus name linaria means ‘linen-weaver’ in Latin, from linum or ‘flax’, which comes from the species’ fondness for flax seed, and flavirostris means ‘yellow-billed’. It looks a little like a juvenile linnet, with the same white panels on the wings and tail, but lacks the red head and breast. Its call is a distinctive ‘twas-it’ from which its name derives, while its song is consists of a series of fast trills and twitters.
The traditional breeding range of the twite used to extend from the moorland and lowland peatlands of northern England to upland areas as far south as Devon. However, by the late 1960s its range had had contracted to the Pennines from Cumbria to the Peak District with just a few birds found in other northern locations.
Even then, it was still a relatively common sight in the Pennines with the population remaining stable throughout the 1970s and 1980s. It was often found in flocks, and seemingly so abundant that it was given the nickname, the Pennine Finch. However, since then it has become a scarce bird, with the south Pennines population falling by 81% between 1990 and 2005.
Unlike many seed-eating birds, twites do not supplement their diet with insects when rearing young, so changes in agricultural practice, particularly the disappearance of wildflower and hay meadows have had a significant impact on their numbers. Twites typically produce two broods of chicks in a season but due to the lack of seed, most pairs only have enough food to raise just one.
Other factors that have contributed to the decline in the numbers of twites include a lack of availability of suitable nesting habitats such as mature heather and bracken, and moorland fires, both accidental and deliberate.
Outside of the breeding season, twites move to coastal lowlands, particularly on open salt marshes, where the birds feed on the seeds of coastal plants, such as sea aster, annual sea-blite, and glasswort. They gather in large flocks sometimes mixing with other finches.
But there has also been a reduction in the size of the winter range. Former wintering areas on the south coast and the Severn Estuary are now almost abandoned and in winter, twites are only really found on the north-west and east coasts of England.
In 2008, in response to the dwindling population, the RSPB and Natural England set up The England Twite Recovery Project. The project’s aims were to halt the decline in twite numbers, increase the number breeding, increase the proportion of twites having two broods, and secure the future of designated breeding sites.
The project has made good progress with 68 landowners signing agreements to plant hay meadow and pasture to help provide natural sources of food for twites. Off the back of this, 285 hectares of land have been planted with dandelion, common sorrel, cat’s ear, and autumn hawkbit to provide food for twites over the breeding season. Second cuttings of hay meadows have been delayed until later in the year so that seed is available to support twites so they can have second broods. And public awareness has been raised through school visits, newspaper articles, and events.
But sadly, despite these efforts, and although there has been an increase in plants available during the middle of the breeding season, the number of twites has continued to fall.
Twites can also be found in Scotland but there are fears that the Scottish population could suffer the same fate as that in England if breeding areas and sources of food aren’t protected. Conservationists are keen to learn the lessons from England so the unique subspecies of twite found in the UK doesn’t disappear for good.