Archived 2014 discussion: McKay’s Bunting (Plectrophenax hyperboreus): downlist to Least Concern?

This discussion was first published as part of the 2013 Red List update, but remains open for comment to enable reassessment in 2014.

BirdLife species factsheet for McKay’s Bunting

McKay’s Bunting Plectrophenax hyperboreus breeds on Hall and St Matthew islands (USA) (totalling c.300 km2) in the Bering Sea, and occasionally on St Lawrence and probably St Paul islands. It winters along the west coast of Alaska, from Kotzebue to the tip of the Alaska Peninsula, irregularly on the south coast of Alaska, occasionally to the Aleutian Islands and accidentally in British Columbia, Canada, and Washington and Oregon, USA. It is currently listed as Near Threatened under criterion D1+2 because it was thought to have a very small population (approximately 2,500 individuals, or 1,600-1,700 mature individuals), confined to a small breeding range on just four islands, but with no evidence of declines or significant threats.

However, recent population estimates suggest that the population size may be much greater than previously thought. Matsuoka and Johnson (2008) estimated the population size of McKay’s Buntings at 27,500-35,400 birds (5-11 times greater than previously reported), based on surveys conducted across its restricted breeding range on St Matthew and Hall islands.

If this estimate is confirmed, the species could warrant downlisting to Least Concern on the basis that it no longer approaches the thresholds for Vulnerable under any of the IUCN criteria. Although the total breeding range is small, the population, extent of occurrence, area of occupancy, area, extent or quality of habitat, and number of locations and subpopulations are not currently thought to be declining, suggesting that the species is unlikely to qualify as threatened or Near Threatened under criteria A, B, or C. However, breeding regularly at only two locations, if there was a plausible threat likely to cause rapid or very rapid future declines then the species could be listed as Near Threatened or even Vulnerable under criterion D2.

Further information is requested on the population size, trends and distribution of this species, and in particular whether there are plausible future threats which cold cause rapid or very rapid population declines within a short timeframe.


Matsuoka, S. M. and Johnson, J. A. (2008) Using a Multimodel Approach to Estimate the Population Size of Mckay’s Buntings. Condor 110(2): 371–376.

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3 Responses to Archived 2014 discussion: McKay’s Bunting (Plectrophenax hyperboreus): downlist to Least Concern?

  1. Heather Renner says:

    Due to the remote nature of the islands where this species breeds, no further surveys have been conducted on St. Matthew or Hall Islands for McKay’s buntings. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service visits the islands every 5-10 years, but typically timed for seabird studies, which is too late in the summer to study nesting McKay’s buntings. The most recent visits were 2002, 2005 and 2012.

    Red foxes have recently established a breeding population on St Matthew. They were first observed in 1997 and as of 2012 had completely suppressed/displaced the native arctic foxes. (On adjacent Hall Island, only arctic foxes were observed to be present). Complex questions for conservation of life forms within island ecosystems are posed by the arrival of a new mammal species to the St. Matthew Islands. The two fox species have very different predatory abilities, as well as differing home range sizes leading to population densities. We hypothesize that the McKay’s bunting, because of its presence and abundance over the entire island and use of diverse and predominately secure crevice nesting habitats, should be little affected by the shift from arctic to red foxes on St. Matthew Island. However, climate-related changes such as this will always be a major “threat” for a species confined to breeding on two islands.

  2. Andy Symes says:

    Preliminary proposals

    Based on available information and comments posted above, our preliminary proposal for the 2014 Red List would be to treat McKay’s Bunting Plectrophenax hyperboreus as Least Concern.

    There is now a period for further comments until the final deadline of 31 March, after which recommended categorisations will be put forward to IUCN.

    The final Red List categories will be published on the BirdLife and IUCN websites in mid-2014, following further checking of information relevant to the assessments by both BirdLife and IUCN.

  3. Andy Symes says:

    Recommended categorisation to be put forward to IUCN

    Following further review, there has been no change to our preliminary proposal for the 2014 Red List status of this species.

    The final categorisation will be published later in 2014, following further checking of information relevant to the assessment by BirdLife and IUCN.

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