04/11/2014
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Appalling declines observed in European birds

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Following the news that Britain's migratory birds have rapidly declined, a new study highlights similar problems across Europe among resident species. The study from the University of Exeter, the RSPB and the Pan-European Common Bird Monitoring Scheme (PECBMS) was published yesterday in the journal Ecology Letters, and reveals a decrease of 421 million individual birds over 30 years. Around 90 percent of these losses were from the 36 most common and widespread species, including House Sparrow, Skylark, Grey Partridge and Starling, highlighting the need for greater efforts to halt the Continent-wide declines of our most familiar countryside birds.

Richard Inger from the University of Exeter said: "It's very worrying that the most common species of bird are declining rapidly because it is these that people benefit from the most. It is becoming increasingly clear that interaction with the natural world and wildlife is central to human wellbeing and significant loss of common birds could be quite detrimental to human society."

House Sparrow
House Sparrow has suffered Continent-wide declines (Photo: Chris Griffin)

Birds help to control agricultural pests and are important dispersers of seeds, while scavenging species play a key role in the removal of carcasses from the environment, particularly in Third World countries. In addition, for many people birds are the primary way in which they interact with wildlife, through listening to bird song, feeding garden birds and through the hobby of birdwatching.

The majority of the declines can be attributed to considerable losses from relatively few common birds, but not all common species are declining. Numbers of Great and Blue Tits, Robins and Blackbirds were all shown to be increasing. Populations of rarer species, including Marsh Harrier, Raven, Common Buzzard and Stone Curlew have also shown increases in recent years; this is likely to be the result of direct conservation action and legal protection in Europe.

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The RSPB's Richard Gregory said: "The rarer birds in this study, whose populations are increasing, have benefited from protection across Europe. For example, White Stork and Marsh Harrier receive among the highest level of protection in the EU, and this is why their numbers have increased. The conservation and legal protection of all birds and their habitats in tandem are essential to reverse declines.

"This is a warning from birds throughout Europe. It is clear that the way we are managing the environment is unsustainable for many of our most familiar species."

White Stork
White Stork is a species that has prospered from the highest level of EU protection (Photo: Ali Ne'ma)

Conservation efforts tend to be focused on rarer species but the research suggests that conservationists should also address issues affecting common birds, for example those traditionally associated with farmland. The declines in bird populations can be linked to modern farming methods, deterioration of the quality of the environment and habitat fragmentation, although the relative importance of these pressures remains unclear.

The study brought together data on 144 species of European bird from many thousands of individual surveys in 25 different countries, highlighting the value of the different national monitoring schemes increasingly working together. The researchers suggest that greater conservation funding and effort should be directed to wider scale environmental improvement programmes. These could include urban green space projects and effective agri-environment schemes, which should aim to deliver real outcomes for declining bird species whether they are rare or common.

Written by: RSPB