European House Sparrow Population Falls 247 Million | Birds

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There are 247 million fewer house sparrows in Europe than there were in 1980, and other once ubiquitous bird species have suffered huge declines, according to a new study.

One in six birds – a net loss of 600 million breeding birds in total – has gone extinct in less than four decades. Common species that disappear from the sky include yellow wagtails (97 m shorter), starlings (75 m shorter) and larks (68 m shorter).

The study by scientists from RSPB, BirdLife International and Czech Ornithological Society analyzed data from 378 of the 445 bird species native to EU countries and the UK, concluding that the overall abundance of breeding birds declined from 17% to 19% between 1980 and 2017.

Total and proportional declines in bird numbers are particularly high among species associated with agricultural land.

The house sparrow has been the hardest hit, losing half of its population, while its close relative, the tree sparrow, has seen 30 million birds drop. Both species have declined due to changing agricultural practices, but house sparrows have also disappeared from many cities for reasons that have not yet been established but are likely to include food shortages, diseases such as avian malaria and air pollution.

Long-distance migrants, such as the yellow wagtail, declined proportionately more than other groups. Photograph: Andy Hay / RSPB / PA

While agricultural intensification causing habitat loss and chemical agriculture triggering sharp declines in insects that feed many birds is a cause of many population declines, long-distance migrants, such as the willow warbler and the yellow wagtail, decreased proportionately more than the other groups. Shorebirds such as lapwing and dotterels also collapsed.

“Our study is a wake-up call for the very real threat of extinctions and a silent spring,” said Fiona Burns, lead study author and lead conservation scientist for the RSPB.

Burns said next year’s meeting of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity was crucial in creating a strong framework to prevent extinctions and recover the lost abundance of many species.

She added: “We need transformative action across society to tackle nature and climate crises together. This means increasing the scale and ambition of nature-friendly agriculture, species protection, sustainable forestry and fisheries, and rapidly expanding the network of protected areas.

While 900 million birds have gone extinct in total, 203 of the 378 species studied have increased in number. Sixty-six percent of the additional 340 million birds were from just eight thriving species: black cap, mouse, blackbird, wren, goldfinch, robin, wood pigeon and blue tit.

The number of 11 species of birds of prey has more than doubled since 1980, including the peregrine falcon, marsh harrier, hawk, white-tailed eagle and golden eagle, although these species are relatively rare and their populations are therefore still mostly small.

A buzzard landing in a field
Eleven species of birds of prey have more than doubled since 1980, including the Common Buzzard. Photograph: Edo Schmidt / Alamy

Scientists say these raptors have benefited from increased protection and a reduction in harmful pesticides and persecution, as well as specific species restoration projects. The Birds Directive and the EU Habitats Directive have also provided legal protection to priority species and habitats that have been shown to benefit bird species.

While the rates of decline of many species have slowed over the past decade, the declines are not just a hangover from the damaging practices of previous decades, and the study supports previous research that reveals substantial recent losses of biodiversity.

The magnitude of the losses and the types of birds that go extinct are comparable to declines in North America, where 3 billion birds have gone extinct since 1970.

Anna Staneva, Acting Head of Conservation at BirdLife Europe, said: “This report shows loud and clear that nature is sounding the alarm bells. While protecting already rare or endangered birds has resulted in successful recoveries, this does not appear to be sufficient to maintain populations of abundant species.

“Common birds are becoming less and less common, in large part because the spaces they depend on are being wiped out by humans. Nature has been eradicated from our farmlands, our sea and our cities. Governments across Europe must set legally binding targets for nature restoration. Otherwise, the consequences will be serious, including for our own species. “


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