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article imageEuropean bird populations in precipitous decline

By Robert Myles     Nov 3, 2014 in Environment
Exeter - Over the last 30 years, bird populations Europe-wide have fallen drastically with the sharpest falls seen among the most common bird species.
The information comes from a joint study conducted by the University of Exeter in the UK, the Pan-European Common Bird Monitoring Scheme (PECBMS), conducted under the auspices of the European Bird Census Council, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the UK's largest nature conservation charity.
The study, published Nov. 2 in the journal Ecology Letters, under the title, “Common European birds are declining rapidly while less abundant species' numbers are rising,” also found that numbers of some less common birds rose during the same period.
Over the past three decades, European bird numbers declined by 421 million. Around 90 percent of these losses occurred among the 36 most common species found all over Europe such as house sparrows, skylarks, grey partridges and starlings.
A murmuration of starlings  a familiar and spectatcular sight in the sky at dusk all over Europe. Bu...
A murmuration of starlings, a familiar and spectatcular sight in the sky at dusk all over Europe. But the starling is one of the common species of bird where numbers are in sharp decline.
Wikimedia Commons
Much greater efforts are needed, say the report’s authors, to arrest the decline in numbers of some of the continent’s most familiar avian residents of the countryside.
Commenting on the study’s findings, Richard Inger, an associate research fellow at Exeter University’s Environment and Sustainability Institute, observed, “It’s very worrying that the most common species of bird are declining rapidly because it’s this group of birds that people benefit from the most."
What was becoming increasingly clear, added Inger, is that, “interaction with the natural world and wildlife is central to human well-being and significant loss of common birds could be quite detrimental to human society."
Birds provide a wide range of benefits to human society. Not only do they help in controlling agricultural pests naturally, but they play an important role in dispersing seeds. Many birds are also scavengers, playing a key role in the environment in ensuring the efficient removal of carcasses.
As the report’s authors point out, birds are the principle means by which many people experience wildlife, whether listening to birdsong or just feeding birds in their back garden. Even in the most built-up areas, birds enable young and old to connect with nature.
While most of the declines in European bird populations can be attributed to substantial losses among a relatively small number of common bird species, not all common species are seeing their populations tail off. The numbers of great tits, robins, blue tits and blackbirds all recorded an increase.
In addition, increases were also recorded among some rarer species in recent years including marsh harriers, ravens, buzzards and stone curlews. The researchers put these increases down to direct conservation action and legal protection in Europe.
"The rarer birds in this study, whose populations are increasing, have benefited from protection across Europe,” said Head of Species Monitoring and Research at the RSPB's Centre for Conservation Science, Richard Gregory.
In the case of white storks and marsh harriers, species that are among those subject to the highest level of protection in the European Union, such protection explained why their numbers have increased, according to Gregory.
"This is a warning from birds throughout Europe. It’s clear that the way we are managing the environment is unsustainable for many of our most familiar species," added Gregory.
The research was made possible through the help of thousands of volunteer fieldworkers painstakingly counting birds according to scientific standards laid down by the Pan-European Common Bird Monitoring Scheme. Each volunteer then contributed their data to national monitoring schemes. Overall, the study brought together data on 144 species of European birds drawn from many thousands of individual surveys spread across 25 different countries.
Previously, many conservation schemes have tended to focus on rarer species but this latest research suggests that conservationists should also focus on common, everyday species of European birds where the sharpest population declines were recorded, particularly where these common birds play an important role in the agricultural environment. The report suggests that such declines may be linked to modern farming methods, deterioration in the quality of the environment and habitat fragmentation, although the relative importance of these pressures remains unclear, say the authors.
Assuming the decline in European bird populations can be attributed to modern farming methods, the researchers suggest that greater conservation funding and impetus should concentrate on wider scale environmental improvement programs.
Such programs could involve a mix of urban green space projects, and effective agri-environment schemes aiming to halt declines in bird species, whether rare or common.
More about European birds, declining bird population, birds of europe, Rspb, exeter university
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