Farmland birds are adapting faster to climate change than farmers


New research has found that farmland birds are adapting to climate change at a quicker rate than the humans that farm the land, prompting fresh concerns over the birds' future conservation.

The study, published in Biological Conservation, compared trends in ground-nesting birds and timing of barley sowing in early spring in Finland. Ground-nesting birds are often impacted by mechanical farming operations, with these activities either disturbing or destroying nests, causing breeding failures in the affected species.

The study focused on Northern Lapwing and Eurasian Curlew. These two ground-nesting waders have declined widely across Europe in recent decades, yet are still widespread and fairly common migrant breeders on arable land across Finland. 

The researchers found that the timing of barley sowing has advanced at a slower rate when compared to the onset of nesting in both species in Finland, with lapwings and curlews increasingly starting to nest before fields are sown. This puts them at direct risk when sowing commences and, as the timing gap increases, destruction of nests may occur when incubation is already at a very advanced stage, leaving no time for the adult birds to produce a replacement clutch. Such a mismatch, under modern intensive farming regimes, is likely to cause widespread negative impacts to the breeding success of these, as well as other ground-nesting birds.

The problems with such mismatches have been demonstrated elsewhere in Europe in threatened species such as Montagu's Harrier and Black-tailed Godwit, both of which are now the subjects of targeted conservation measures to ensure the safe fledging of young without disrupting agricultural productivity. The results of this study further highlight the importance of considering human adaptation responses, in addition to those of wildlife, for implementing conservation efforts in managed landscapes under climate change for a wide range of species.



Santangeli, A, Lehikoinen, A, Bock, A, & 4 others. 2017. Stronger response of farmland birds than farmers to climate change leads to the emergence of an ecological trap. Biological Conservation 217:166-172. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2017.11.002