Intensive farming is the main cause of bird decline in Europe

Research reveals that the extent of intensive monoculture farming is primarily responsible for the decline in bird populations that Europe has experienced over the past 40 years. Specifically, they have been reduced by an average of 25%, but the decline is closer to 60% in the case of typical farmland species. The study, published in the journal Annals of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) was conducted by the University of Montpellier and the Center for Ecological Research and Forestry Applications (CREAF) and the Catalan Institute of Ornithology (ICO) participated.

In each country, birds are disappearing differently, according to the characteristics of their agricultural practices. For example, the regions of Western Europe where crops tend to be large and the intense use of pesticides are among the most affected, compared to countries in the East, where these practices are not so marked.

Emberiza citrinella

Western Europe was more affected than the eastern part of the continent. In the picture: a citrinella emberiza. / Niklaus Zbinden

Another particular case is the Mediterranean basin, where the characteristic relief of the land has allowed it to maintain, at least in some areas, an agricultural landscape mosaic. This space shows vegetation and stone margins, as well as cultures combined with natural habitats and “this has helped to cushion the loss of birds”, explains Sergi Herrando, co-author of the study and researcher for CREAF, ICO and the European Bird Census Council.

According to the study, the intensification of agriculture has increased the use of fertilizers and pesticides. These products eliminate insects and other invertebrates from the soil, essential food for many birds. Its use occurs “mainly during the breeding season, when the chicks need a lot of protein”, comments Lluís Brotons, CSIC researcher at CREAF and another of the co-authors, in the release note for the work.

The decline is close to 60% of birds in the case of typical farmland species

These products also contaminate the seeds. If birds ingest them, the toxic substances build up in their bodies and can even cause death.

On the other hand, monocultures generate homogeneous landscapes, where vegetation diversity is eliminated, so that birds cannot feed on varied plants and fruits or seek refuge.

Two Iberian bargains

The authors warn of the need to transform European societies. In the image: two Iberian bargains / Xavier Riera

The authors warn that this does not only affect species typical of the cultivation zones such as the lark or the yellow hammerhead, but also other species that go to the crops to feed. Among them, those whose diet is based on invertebrates, such as the common swallow or long-distance migrants, such as the turtledove, “in short, most common birds”, points out Brotons.

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The study looked at 170 common bird species, which were observed at more than 20,000 sites in 28 European countries over 37 years.

According to Stanislas Rigal, a researcher at the University of Montpellier and the main author of the article, “the results leave no room for doubt”. In his opinion, it is not a local problem: “the harmful effects of large crops, fertilizers and pesticides extend across Europe”. Therefore, “we need to accelerate the regulation of agricultural practices and implement more sustainable models”, he adds.

climate change

The research also looked at the role of global warming, urbanization and changes in the forest landscape in species decline. The results point to climate change as the second cause of the decline, after agricultural intensification, since the increase in temperature led to the loss of 40% of the populations of birds typical of cold environments and 18% of those of warm habitats.

“This difference is probably due to the fact that birds characteristic of high latitudes and altitudes are less adapted to heat”, explains Herrando.

We need to accelerate the regulation of agricultural practices and implement more sustainable models

Stanislas Rigal, lead author of the study

On the other hand, urbanization is positioned as the third factor in this fauna decline. “There are less and less green areas and more buildings in cities” and bird populations in urban areas have declined by 28%.

Finally, birds typical of the forest have decreased by around 18%, a value that contrasts with the increase in forest cover in Europe in recent years. According to the authors, the new forest spaces have less quality, that is, they lost centenary trees and the fauna and flora were simplified.

“The four human pressures we describe in the article have already caused, together, a 25% decrease in the total number of birds in Europe. The descent continues. To stop it, we need transformative changes in European societies; New political pacts like the European Restoration Act being negotiated in the European Parliament can help to promote them”, concludes Brotons.

Rigal, S. et al. “Farming practices are leading to declining bird populations across Europe” PNAS (2023)

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