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New research shows pesticides and fertilisers linked to bird decline

May 19, 2023
Charlotte Bartleet-Cross

A new study published in PNAS, co-authored by RSPB scientists, shows that bird decline in Europe is linked to the use of pesticides and fertilisers in farmland environments.

The study looked at bird populations at over 20,000 sites across Europe, in 28 different countries over the period 1980-2016. The study surveyed farmland species, woodland species, urban dwellers and hot/cold dwellers, and considered various human-mediated pressures on bird decline.

The study found that:

  • Bird populations have declined in Europe between 1980-2016, by around ~25%, with farmland birds more drastically impacted than other categories, with a loss of over 55%.
  • Agricultural intensification is most detrimental to bird populations. It had the highest correlation to bird decline and is likely one of the major pressures facing birds, especially species who consume invertebrates for at least part of their life cycle.
  • Urbanisation was also found to be a major pressure impacting birds. The most 'urban' areas, with a higher percentage of man-made structures, were found to be negatively associated with species trends.
  • Increasing temperature has been found to be positive for hot dwellers, urban dwellers and woodland species, but negative for cold dwellers, long-distance migrants, farmland species and those that specialise on invertebrates or a granivorous diet.

These results support our previous research in UK gardens, which has shown a negative relationship between pesticides and the number and diversity of your garden birds. However, all is not lost, and there are some great tips you can follow, to reduce and replace pesticides and fertilisers at home:

  1. Companion planting. Try your hand at planting different plants together, to benefit their growth and health, without needing pesticides.
  2. Manual de-weeding, mulching and pruning. A bit of manual care for your plants, means you can target the plant specifically at risk, and prune the affected areas.
  3. Natural home remedies. You can discourage pests with some natural sources you can find in your home, a garlic spray to deter aphids, dried seaweed to discourage slugs or sticky barriers to stop weevils round your plants.
  4. Encouraging natural predators. Make the best use of your garden by providing a natural, wildlife-friendly environment with lots of flowers, trees, and shrubs. Th best defence to pests is lots of birds, and during breeding season, one of their favourite snacks is a big juicy caterpillar. By encouraging wildlife, you are encouraging natural predators to eat the insects, so they don't destroy your prize vegetables!

For more information, read the paper here or visit our research page to see what research we have done to investigate the effect of pesticides on songbirds.

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