There has been a crash in our rural and urban songbird population over the last 50 years

Wild birds are bio-indicators, meaning that their numbers are a good reflection of the health of wildlife in the wider countryside

This rapid decline in songbird numbers shows that our wildlife, as a whole, is suffering


So, what’s going on?

For many years, songbird declines have been blamed on modern farming techniques and loss of habitat. At SongBird Survival, we believe that there is more to the story.

Why?

In the UK, farmers are encouraged to deliver benefits for wildlife through countryside stewardship schemes.

These schemes reward farmers for carrying out wildlife-friendly practices on their land, such as creating habitat, planting hedges, and sowing songbird-friendly seed mixes.

The area of land under countryside stewardship is growing:

  • Over 70% of England’s farmland is under countryside stewardship
  • 7.2 million hectares of UK land is managed to benefit wildlife (JNCC 2014 figures)
  • The area of broadleaved woodland is also increasing (according to the Forestry Commission)

But with all these habitat improvements, why are songbird numbers still decreasing?


Impact of predators

We believe that high levels of predators and scavengers are affecting our songbirds.

This includes both mammals and birds:

  • Corvids (carrion crows, magpies, jays & jackdaws)                           
  • Badgers
  • Domestic & feral cats                                                                              
  • Foxes
  • Larger birds such as sparrowhawks & buzzards                                  
  • Mink 

These species have adapted to new environments, and their populations have increased rapidly. They disturb nests, eat eggs, nestlings and adult birds. Low and ground nesting songbirds are easy targets in the breeding season.


Impact of non-native species

We believe that non-native species are out-competing our native songbirds for food and nesting sites.

  • Grey squirrels eat songbird nestlings and eggs, compete for food, destroy broad-leaved trees, and are out-competing our native red squirrels
  • Parakeet numbers have increased tenfold in 40 years. They are outcompeting our native birds for food and nest sites
  • Non-native deer species, such as fallow deer and Muntjac, reduce the quality of woodland habitat by browsing and removing vegetation that provides nest sites, feeding sites and shelter

Impact of environmental schemes

We believe that environmental schemes targeted at improving biodiversity are not delivering their intended positive impacts for wildlife.

  • Despite 10 years of targeted agri-environment schemes at our research farm, songbird numbers are still going down
  • Although the area of broadleaved woodland is increasing, without appropriate management this woodland does not provide the mosaic of habitats that songbirds need

What are the solutions?

We believe in management for balance.

SongBird Survival believes that predators and non-native species need to be carefully managed to help boost songbird numbers.

Alongside this, we believe that more research is needed to properly understand the reasons for songbird declines, and develop real solutions. We are working with other organisations to try and understand the bigger picture. Learn more about what we do here.

References 

Broome, A., Fuller, R.J., Bellamy, P.E., Eichhorn, M.P., Gill, R.M.A., Harmer, R., Kerr,  G. and Siriwardena, G.M., 2017, Implications of lowland broadleaved woodland management for the conservation of target bird species, Forestry Commission Research Note 028Available online

Eichhorn, M. P., Ryding, J., Smith, M. J., Gill, R. M. A., Siriwardena, G. M. and Fuller, R. J. (2017), Effects of deer on woodland structure revealed through terrestrial laser scanning. Journal of Applied Ecology, doi:10.1111/1365-2664.12902. Available online

Fuller, R.J. & Gill, R.M.A., (2010) BOU Proceedings – The Impacts of Non-native Species. Available online

Gregory, R. D., Noble, D., Field, R., Marchant, J., Raven, M. and Gibbons, D. W. (2003) Using birds as indicators of biodiversity. Ornis Hung. 12-13: 11–24. Available online

Holt, C. A., Fuller, R. J., & Dolman, P. M. (2011). Breeding and post-breeding responses of woodland birds to modification of habitat structure by deer. Biological conservation144(9), 2151-2162 Available online

Kleijn, D., and Sutherland W.J., (2003) REVIEW How effective are European agri-environment schemes in conserving and promoting biodiversity? Journal of Applied Ecology 40: 947–969. Available online

Sage, R.B., and Sotherton, N.W. (2015). Predation of woodland bird nests by tree squirrels in Britain, Central Europe and North America. In: Shuttleworth, C.M., Lurtz, P.W. & Hayward, M.W. (eds) Red Squirrels: Ecology, Conservation & Management in Europe: 147-162. European Squirrel Initiative, Woodbridge

Woods, M., McDonald, R., and Harries, S., 2016, Predation of wildlife by domestic cats Felis catus in Great Britain, Mammal Review 33(2):174-188. Available online