Ornithologists monitor decline in farmland bird species

Yellow hammer, photo: Alan Vernon, Creative Commons 2.0

Ornithologists in Europe have been noticing that many wild bird species have undergone severe decline across the continent over the last three decades, particularly in EU countries. Among them are the skylark, the yellow hammer and the lapwing.The Czech Society for Ornithology has been involved in an international project which monitors trends in the populations of wild bird species in Europe.

About that and more Radio Prague talked to Petr Vorisek of the Czech Society for Ornithology.

"Research and monitoring schemes of birds have shown that the declining species in Europe are mostly species which are connected to the farmland. Farmland species are the most declining species in Europe. They have been declining since the 1980s by some 30 percent. Also, some woodland species are declining as well but this decline has not been as severe as in farmland species. Other species, like blackbirds (we call them general species because they are not connected directly to any given specific habitat), these species are more or less stable or some of them even increase."

What is behind the declining trend in the farmland species?

"Generally, we can say it is agricultural intensification. Agricultural intensification has many faces, many aspects. We can speak about mechanisation, increasing use of pesticides, increasing use of fertilisers, and many other things. But generally, the agricultural intensification is the main driving force which caused such a severe decline in farmland birds."

Skylark,  photo: Daniel Pettersson,  Creative Commons 2.5
You said that the trend has been going on since the 1980s, but in what are now new EU countries, such as the Czech Republic and other Central European countries, there was an opposite trend in the 1990s when the declining stopped. But now it has resumed again. Why did that happen?

"Yes, when we look at the graphs of farmland species in old EU members and new EU members, we can see more or less parallel trends in the 1980s. In both groups of countries farmland birds declined. In new EU countries or Eastern European countries the decline was not so dramatic but still there was quite a big decline. And then in the late in 1980s and at the beginning of the 1990s there was a dramatic change in the new EU members. The numbers of farmland bird species almost recovered in the early 1990 almost to 100 percent again and started declining again slowly. The main reason was the change in agricultural practices at the beginning of the 1990s in the former Eastern Bloc. We all know that there were deep political changes in the former Eastern Bloc and it resulted also in changes in the support of agricultural policies. Generally speaking, there was less support of agricultural intensification. Agriculture became less intensive compared to the previous years. And that had a direct effect on farmland birds and other biodiversity as well."

How are the surveys being conducted?

Yellow hammer,  photo: Alan Vernon,  Creative Commons 2.0
"It is very difficult to explain in a few words. Basically, we cannot count all the birds, all the individuals. So we rely on samples. Generally, in each country there is a common bird monitoring scheme. The fieldwork, the real counting of birds in the field is realised by volunteers, skilled amateur ornithologists who know how to identify birds in the field. And these people have selected sampling plots, certain sites in the country. They go to the field in the spring, in the breeding season, usually twice, sometimes more often, sometimes less, and they report the results of their counting to a national coordinator. The national coordinator reports to a Central European coordinator."

And your organisation coordinates these schemes within Europe as part of a pan-European monitoring project...

"Our organisation, the Czech Society for Ornithology, is an organisation which is in charge of the coordination of other European countries but this is really an international project. It is a common project of Birdlife International, the European Bird Census Council and all the partners across Europe. Our organisation is just the one selected to coordinate that work."

Lapwing | Photo: Mirko Thiessen,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY 2.5
You know the trends - but are you able to also propose some measures to governments, let's say, to stop or reverse those trends?

"Basically, this is not our task. Our task is to monitor the changes and report to policy people, to governments what is going on in biodiversity. But of course, we are connected to other groups and to nature conservationists. There are several measures, like in case of farmland bird species it is called agri-environmental schemes, which means, in a very simplified form, that the farm gets subsidies not for production but for nature-friendly management. So these are measures to combat these adverse things happening in our countryside. We can suggest several things but our main duty is to monitor things and to show: this is a problem and this is not a problem."

We have so far been speaking in general terms, but what are the actual species most endangered by agriculture?

"It could be quite a long list. Just a few examples: a very well-known declining species is the skylark. The skylark declines almost everywhere across Europe, but again the decline in Eastern European countries is not as deep as in Western European countries. Then for example, the yellow hammer, again a declining farmland species. We have seen quite a dramatic decline in the case of lapwings. Starlings decline in Western European countries but it is quite the opposite in Eastern European countries. It is increasing in fact in the Czech Republic and other Eastern European countries."

Sparrow,  photo: Barbora Kmentová
I am, of course, no ornithologist, but I, too, have been noticing some trends around me, in the city. For example, when I was a little girl, the house sparrow was the most widespread bird in our neighbourhood and now you can hardly see a sparrow. Is this part of the trend or is this unrelated?

"The case of the house sparrow is quite difficult. We didn't include the house sparrow in our calculations because this species is quite highly urbanised, living close to people. For the future we certainly think we will include the house sparrow in our trend analyses. In the case of the house sparrow we are not quite sure what caused its decline. Certainly we know this species declines, not only in the Czech Republic but in other countries, like in the UK as well. Some research shows that perhaps the survival of young birds in their first winter is the most problematic period for house sparrows but what is the reason - we don't know yet."