Friday, 3 May 2013

The decline of small farmland birds


A thought-provoking and highly interesting presentation was delivered to members of the Northants Bird Club at their monthly meeting on Wednesday evening.  The talk was associated with the decline of small farmland birds, typically Tree Sparrow, Corn Bunting, Yellowhammer, Reed Bunting and Linnet.  Dr Alan Larkman delivered the presentation, illustrating the evidence for his personal but well-evidenced views on why the small farmland seed-eaters are not increasing despite initiatives to help them.  He discussed the dynamics of why it is that large birds such as Pheasant, Woodpigeon, corvids etc have all increased since the mid-1970s but the small bio-mass birds that depend on smaller seed-types in a well-scattered format have seen a complete reverse in fortune.  Dr Larkman argued that despite a strong lobby to curb the numbers, the general increase in raptors did not adversely affect these dwindling species, and in fact there is some evidence that a healthy raptor population serves to improve the overall strength and resilience of small bird species.  

Not surprisingly, modern agricultural practises that are efficient and effective at reducing the all-important weed-seeds for birds was sited as the main overall negative factor affecting small farmland birds.  Not only is the amount of weed seed much less, but the insect food that is critical to nestling survival  is also much-reduced.  It seems that the productivity of nesting birds is reasonable and has actually improved, but the ability for birds to sustain themselves during critical 'bottlenecks' of low food availability means that they simply cannot survive.  We have all seen game crops and strips and even wild bird crops designed to provide help to these birds; excellent for the successful larger birds and even the small birds until the food effectively runs out at the end of January or February.  With no natural seed bank available until late summer, small birds then either move off if they are fit to do so or effectively starve to death.  It is then not surprising to witness birds such as Reed Buntings moving in to gardens during the latter part of the winter and spring - they are simply responding to food availability.

Dr Larkman is based in West Oxfordshire, which in many respects mirrors similar habitat to many areas of Northamptonshire.  His studies are based locally and he has collated research completed by others interested in the same area of work.  To provide evidence of his theories and also to satisfy his passion for small farmland birds, Dr Larkman and a band of volunteers maintain a variety of feeding stations to help support birds, particularly during the 'hunger gap' of late winter/spring.  His slides were just amazing with fabulous images of hundreds of Linnets, Yellowhammers etc all feeding together on carefully scattered seed, hanging feeders groaning under the weight of amassed Tree Sparrows and other telling images depicting what actually can be done to support our feathered friends.

For me, the presentation was hard-hitting, extremely compelling and above all inspirational.  I just hope that Alan is provided with the appropriate platform to convey his views which surely should affect the policy and execution of modern agricultural practises and European initiatives to support small farmland birds.  My thanks to Alan for a fascinating presentation and coordinating the support for vulnerable local bird species.


Neil M
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