In a striking contrast of fortunes, many common species of European birds are suffering an alarming and rapid decline. Meanwhile, protected rare species have shown signs of much-needed recovery.


Researchers from the University of Exeter, the RSPB and the Pan-European Common Bird Monitoring Scheme (PECBMS) have recently published a report which has revealed a dramatic and shocking decline in common European bird numbers. The report also found that, while the common species are struggling, populations of more rare species under Europe-wide protection are on the rise, suggesting a shift in conservation focus may be necessary.


The study revealed a startling decrease of 421 million individual birds in just three decades, with 90 percent of these losses from 36 species which were once considered common and widespread, such as house sparrows, starlings, and skylarks. With biodiversity undergoing a rapid global decline, much emphasis and attention has been focused on rare and endangered species that face greater risk of extinction. Species we would consider common, despite their greater importance in terms of ecosystem function and service provision, have received less interest.


Past studies have revealed the wide range of ecosystem services that the so-called common species offer, such as pest control, decomposition, pollination and seed dispersal. Richard Inger, of the University of Exeter, warns “It is becoming increasingly clear that interaction with the natural world and wildlife is central to human wellbeing and significant loss of common birds could be quite detrimental to human society.”


The new research highlights the need for increased efforts to halt the rapid decline of some of our most familiar and well known bird species. Inger predicts that this rapid loss could have further consequences on human populations: “It is very worrying that the most common species of bird are declining rapidly because it is this group of birds that people benefit from the most.”


The rarer species of birds showing a population increase include, marsh harriers, ravens, white storks and stone curlews. These represent brilliant examples of ‘good news’ conservation successes.


The RSPB’s Richard Gregory is in no doubt that the rarer birds in the study are benefiting from increased protection, remarking that a population increase in species such as marsh harriers and white storks can only be attributed to having the highest level of protection in the European Union.


However, Gregory suggests a problem with the way species and habitats have been managed over the last thirty years; “It is clear that the way we are managing the environment is unsustainable for many of our most familiar species.”


The study advises the need for increased conservation funding and insists efforts should be moved away from narrow species and habitat conservation. Instead focus should be moved towards a much wider-scale environmental recovery and protection and improvement programmes, such as urban green spaces and progressive agri-environment schemes.


Lessons need to be learned to deliver positive results and put a halt to the decline in bird species, if we take the common species for granted too often, they might not be such a regular occurrence down the line.


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