Silent spring scenario warning from Czech ornithologist

Sparrow, photo: J. M. Garg, CC 3.0

The number of common birds in the Czech Republic continues to decline, according to the annual report on the environment for 2015. The report suggests diminished biodiversity and modern intensive farming methods are among the main factors behind the trend. The total number of birds in the Czech Republic has dropped by nearly six percent since 1982, with farmland species down by over 30 percent.

Petr Voříšek,  photo: Czech Television
I spoke to Petr Voříšek of the Czech Society for Ornithology and first asked him just how serious the situation was:

“The situation is serious, but we have to know that the figure we are talking about concerns the most common bird species. It is not about all the bird species in the Czech Republic, it is about the most common species, which in fact cover about 95 percent of the total bird population. So we are talking about decline of the most numerous species, which is s something different from species being threatened by extinction.”

Can you be more specific? Which species are we talking about?

“Just to give a few examples, the species we are talking about are sparrows, starling, skylarks, lapwings. They are the most common species we used to meet every day but nowadays it is increasingly less common to come across these birds, at least in such numbers as in the past.”

What are the main causes behind this trend? Is it mainly climate change or the way we manage farmland?

“Climate change is definitely part of the story, but in case of the Czech Republic, climate change plays quite a strange role. We see the Nordic, or cold-loving species, declining or disappearing, because they move further north but at the same time we are getting more and more species from the south. But the more serious threat, at least at the moment, is the use of land and specifically the way we manage farmland.”

That is indeed true, because according to the report, farmland birds show the most rapid decline, over 30 percent. What are the main reasons?

Sparrow,  photo: J. M. Garg,  CC 3.0
“In simple words, it is intensification of agriculture, which mean increased use of pesticides and industrial fertilizers. It also means big homogenous fields with single crop. Such a unified can host only a few species, if any.

“It also means increased effectivity of agricultural techniques, so the landscape is getting more homogenous, not only in space, but also in time. In the past the harvest would take several weeks because the tools were not so effective. Nowadays, everything is harvested at once and the birds are losing their habitats, their shelters and their resources.

“And then, in case of our country, we should also take into account the recent history. After 1989 the former socialistic agriculture almost collapsed and at the time, we witnessed recovery of many farmland species. Nowadays, when agriculture becomes more intensified, especially in the most productive areas, like in the lowlands, we see another decline.

“At the same time, however, we see some increase, probably only temporal, of species typical for grassland, because arable land in the higher altitudes were converted to the grassland and some species benefit from that. So the picture is far from black and white, but agriculture intensification really is the main threat for birds in the Czech Republic.”

And would you say that this problem only concerns the Czech Republic, or does it concern the whole of Europe?

Photo: Andrew Smith,  CC BY SA 2.0
“It concerns the whole of Europe. In in many European countries the situation is even worse. Especially on the EU level we see an even faster decline in farmland birds, up to 50 percent compared with the 1980s.”

Can a further decline be prevented? And does the Czech Society for Ornithology propose any measures to the government to slow down this trend?

“Yes, the decline can be and should be stopped, but the question is how. The way we manage the landscape is much more difficult for nature conservation than for instance protecting a single species against persecution. Changing the agriculture practices requires changing the system of subsidies. The Czech Republic as part of the EU benefits from the common agriculture, which means the common agriculture policy would have to change.”

Does the decline in the number of birds have consequences not he environment?

“This is an interesting question. Why should we be concerned about the decline and about what we are losing. I must admit this is part of a research area where we still expect big development. Nowadays, we call it ecosystem services. In other words, the services birds provide to us humans.

“And there are some examples that who’s how birds can be beneficial to people. They can, in some cases, control the level of pests, but in most cases, it is quite difficult to put the exact value on their meaning. An increasing number of studies conclude that people in areas with more birds, in areas with better biodiversity are healthier.”

The Czech Society for ornithology has been monitoring the number of birds for decades. How do you carry out the monitoring?

Skylark,  photo: Daniel Pettersson,  CC 2.5
“There are of course many surveys, not just one. In principle, it is a typical example of a so-called citizen science, which is very trendy these days. Ornithology has a big advantage that there are a lot of people who love birds.

“A lot of people can identify birds in the fields and at the same time, these people are keen to perform field research and monitor birds according to standardized methodology, at a specific time of the year and day.

“For instance in the Czech Republic they go to the same selected points, year by year and spring by spring, and at each point they count all the birds they can see or hear the time space of five minutes. So this is, very briefly, how we do it. What we need is an army of skilled and motivated birdwatchers and we are lucky to have them.”