What Is Killing the Great Birds of Europe?

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House sparrows. It disseminates seeds and helps pollinate plants.Credit: Lip Kee

Europe’s bird population has dropped significantly over the last three decades, a new British study has found.

The decline, which has been particularly noticeable among common species like sparrows and starlings, is also liable to undermine the birds’ ability to provide important services to ecosystems.

The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Exeter, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Pan-European Common Bird Monitoring Scheme, was published in the journal “Ecology Letters.”

The researchers tracked the populations of various bird species in Europe from 1980 to 2009. For this purpose, they used information from bird counts conducted over the years by various organizations, including BirdLife, an international bird protection organization. Numerous volunteers throughout the continent participate in such counts every year.

The study concluded that Europe’s bird population has declined by hundreds of millions over the last three decades. More than 90 percent of this decline occurred in the 24 most common species, including partridges, house sparrows, starlings and skylarks.

Many of the species in which declines were recorded are found primarily in rural and agricultural areas. Thus it seems the main reason for their gradual disappearance is the accelerated pace of development in these areas, and/or their exposure to various pollutants.

However, the study found a rise in the population of protected species – a bit of good news that shows such efforts can succeed. One salient example is the growth in the white stork population, following major efforts to protect their nesting sites and reduce poaching.

Another success story is the western marsh harrier, a rare bird that is also seen in Israel during the migration season. In Israel, these raptors enjoy full protection, but they are often hunted in neighboring countries.

Most bird protection efforts today focus on areas where rare species are found. But the researchers concluded that greater effort must also be invested in protecting ecosystems and open areas that serve more common species.

“This is a warning from birds throughout Europe,” Richard Gregory of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds told the Nature World News website. “It is clear that the way we are managing the environment is unsustainable for many of our most familiar species.”

The main reason for concern over population declines among species like sparrows and starlings is the important role they play in ecosystems. These species disseminate seeds and help pollinate plants, some of which are used for food. They also help control the population of harmful species of insects that damage agricultural crops.

The researchers noted that contact with such common bird species is also important for people, as this is one of the main ways human beings connect to nature these days. On the other hand, an overpopulation of certain bird species can also cause damage, as in the case of hooded crows, which prey on the songbird population.

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