science

New urban songbird research from SongBird Survival

Our PhD student Hugh has successfully published another paper from his Gardens for Birds project.

Tit - Parus major

Great Tit – Parus major – one of the species studied in this project

In this study, Hugh wanted to investigate how the local environment helps determine the materials used in nest construction, how this differs among related species using similar nest sites, or if materials used directly or indirectly influence the numbers of offspring successfully reared.

He found that use of anthropogenic material affects songbird nest arthropod community structure. Specifically, more man-made material used in tit nests resulted in more fleas in the nests.

Clearly, urbanisation may have wide ranging and little studied effects on our urban songbird populations. Hugh’s work identified that nest boxes are ecological communities in their own right; they may be more complex than they first appear, and worthy of consideration for further investigation.

Read the entire paper here.

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How can we manage broadleaved woodland to benefit birds?

Broome et al 2017Although broadleaved woodland, an important habitat for many birds, is increasing in the UK, songbird populations are still in decline. An interesting new review of previous research, combined with a field study by the Forestry Commission, has provided some possible solutions to this quandary.

Researchers studied a representative sample of broadland lowland woodlands in England and Wales, assessing the effect of woodland management (silvicultural intervention and control of deer browsing) on vegetation structure, and the relationships between vegetation structure and woodland birds.

Different bird species have different habitat and resource requirements, which researchers identified from a review of existing literature. For example, while hawfinches mainly forage in woodland canopy, dunnocks forage on the ground and willow tits are reliant on the shrub layer for their foraging requirements. Wood warblers prefer mature woodland, whereas song thrush require woodland in a younger stage of development.

As well as summarising resource requirements for 17 target bird species, the study classified different woodland stand structures from A to F, which related to their value to birds:

A – dense low shrub layer
B – dense high shrub layer
C – open understory
D – open canopy
E – closed canopy, few strata
F – closed canopy, multiple strata

The most frequently occurring structures found currently in lowland broadleaved woodlands in England and Wales were stand type E, which are of least value to woodland birds.

The crucial finding from this research is that a very high proportion of lowland broadleaved woodland in England and Wales is of fairly uniform structure. This lack of structural heterogeneity means that our woodlands are missing the mosaic of habitats which different bird species rely on.

Simply increasing the UK’s area of broadleaved woodland is not enough to help songbird populations recover: these woodlands need appropriate, targeted management to deliver a mixture of different stand structures at the landscape scale.

This research has identified a novel approach, providing woodland owners and managers with practical management advice to increase the biodiversity value of their woodland. Creating a more diverse structure through targeted woodland management practices is essential to provide suitable habitat and resources, and to enable woodland bird populations to thrive.

Read the full research paper here.

Introducing SongBird Survival’s new research project!

In partnership with the University of Exeter, we aim to find out how we can improve the health and welfare of cats and wildlife. Find out more below:

 https://biteable.com/watch/embed/introducing-our-new-research-project-in-partnersh-1455388

Introducing our new research project, in partnership with the University of Exeter on Biteable.

Road verges are a last hope for UK’s rarest plants, says Plantlife

Next time you’re making a car journey, take a moment to appreciate the humble roadside verge, as you might find something surprising.

Far from being lifeless stretches of faded grass, roadside verges are incredibly valuable for biodiversity. Studies by Plantlife have found that road verges in the UK represent a last refuge for some of our rarest species of plant. However, mowing and management of verges presents a threat to these endangered plants. Plantlife have called for verges to be managed for wildlife to aid conservation efforts.

Plantlife found an incredible 724 species growing on road verges, with some species being found nowhere else.  The top 10 threatened verge species are as follows:

  • Fen ragwort
  • Spiked rampion
  • Crested cow-wheat
  • Tower mustard
  • Velvet Lady’s-mantle
  • Yarrow broomrape
  • Sulphur clover
  • Wood calamint
  • Welsh groundsel
  • Wood bitter-vetch

Some of these species are now restricted to a single ditch in the wild.

In 2015, SongBird Survival supporter Eddie Bullimore lobbied Norfolk County Council to reduce verge cuts on rural roads to conserve the county’s wildlife, including songbirds.

Verge management such as flail cutting means that haws (hawthorn fruit) and rose hips are lost, and thistles are often cut before they can seed. It also endangers ground-nesting birds such as skylark. Thistle seeds are a favourite food source for goldfinch, whils
t fieldfares eat haws, and field mice, an important food source for barn owls, like to feast on rose hips.

Reducing the frequency of cuts means that plant species, and the other wildlife which relies on them such as insects, birds and small mammals, are able to thrive.

To find out more about good management of verges, download Plantlife’s Good Verge Guide here.

Birds hit by cars have smaller brains

New research has uncovered an interesting finding about the consequences of birds’ learnt behaviour in relation to traffic.

When driving along a fast road, you may have seen some species of bird happily wandering the hard-shoulder, apparently oblivious to the traffic zooming past them. Some species, such as magpies, seem especially expert at hopping out of the way to avoid on-coming cars.

Previous studies have actually shown that birds are able to adapt to the direction of traffic and lane use, and this apparently results in reduced risks of fatal traffic accidents.

A new study by Anders Pape Møller and Johannes Erritzøe analysed the link between birds killed by traffic and their relative brain mass. Looking at 3521 birds from 251 species that were brought to a taxidermist, scientists found that birds that were killed in traffic had relatively smaller brains, while there was no similar difference for liver mass, heart mass or lung mass.

These findings suggest that birds actually learn the behaviour of car drivers, and that they use their brains to adjust behaviour to try and avoid mortality caused by rapidly and predictably moving objects. 

More about this fascinating topic can be read in the full research article here.

 

Regional dialects in songbirds

A fascinating citizen science project has successfully mapped the distribution of dialects in yellowhammers (Emberiza citrinella) in both New Zealand and the UK.

Yellowhammers, like us, have regional dialects, with differences in their song depending on the region that they live. A familiar farmland bird in the UK, the species was introduced to New Zealand over 100 years ago, and this has provided researchers with a unique opportunity to investigate two completely isolated populations.

The Yellowhammer Dialects project used citizen science volunteers to record yellowhammer song in the field. This allowed the project to access lots of data from across a very large area, which was then compared with historic recordings from archives. All this information was then used to accurately map the composition and distribution of different dialects in the two countries.

Researchers found an interesting difference in dialect between the populations of yellowhammers, with New Zealand yellowhammers sing nearly twice as many different dialects than yellowhammers in the UK.

They explain this result by suggesting that New Zealand yellowhammers have retained song structures which were originally from the UK, but have subsequently been lost in the mother country, perhaps due to the widespread decline in yellowhammers in the UK.

The yellowhammer dialect system may be the avian equivalent of a phenomenon already noted in human languages, in which ancient words or structures are retained in expatriate communities.

A fascinating finding, and one which will hopefully be complemented by further results in the near future; after the success of this project, the researchers have decided to host sister projects in both Switzerland and Poland.

The full research paper can be found here.

Hugh’s research paper published

The latest paper from SongBird Survival’s Keith Duckworth project has recently been published in Ibis.

PhD student Hugh Hanmer has been studying urban bird ecology and conservation with Professor Mark Fellowes and Dr Rebecca Thomas at the University of Reading. The primary focus of his PhD has been on the indirect effects of garden bird feeding, though other work has taken in nest boxes and domestic cat ranging across the urbanisation gradient.

Hugh’s recent paper investigates whether feeding birds increases local nest predation. Using the university’s suburban parkland campus as a study site, Hugh replicated a typical suburban garden. He set up artificial nests, containing quail eggs, either 5 or 10 meters away from feeding stations. A variety of feeder types were used (guarded/unguarded, peanut-filled/empty), and both the nests and feeding stations were monitored with camera traps to see which species visited them.

Hugh found that Eurasian magpies and grey squirrels were frequent visitors to unguarded feeders, and this resulted in a five-fold increase in predation rates of nests that were set up near these feeders. Eurasian jays also predated these nests, although they did not visit the feeders.

-parakeets-and-squirre

The researchers suggest that magpies and grey squirrels are attracted to the food, and then forage locally, increasing the chances of finding local nests, and that the Jays respond to the presence of the other species, rather than the presence of the food itself.

Irrespective of the behavioural underpinning, the result of providing food was increased nest predation.

Wildlife gardening is hugely popular in the UK, and we spend £200 million on bird food every year. But we need to ensure that we are doing the right thing for wildlife.

Hugh’s research has important implications for how we feed the birds in our gardens, to make sure we are benefiting song and other small bird populations.

Hugh suggests that feeders are placed as far away as possible from potential nests sites during the key nesting period in late spring. It’s also important to offer food which is less attractive to nest predators and more suitable for the birds we want to support. Finally, he advocates the use of feeder guards, even though this didn’t reduce predation. This is simply because the use of guards means that more food goes to the target beneficiaries, rather than helping grow local populations of squirrels and magpies!

For more information on how to benefit songbirds in your garden, visit the SongBird Survival website. To view Hugh’s full research paper, click here.

 

 

Saving Our Dawn Chorus

What is behind the continuing decline of our songbirds today? What are the underlying reasons and what potential solutions should be investigated?

SongBird Survival is committed to finding out the answers to these questions through commissioning quality scientific research into the issue.

In 2016, we produced a short film, presented by ecologist Katy Thomas, introducing SongBird Survival and looking at where the UK’s famous dawn chorus is heading.

Since the 1970s, populations of songbirds in the UK have crashed, and our dawn chorus is far less rich and diverse than it was in our parents’ and grandparents’ day.

Yellowhammer populations have declined by 55%, cornbunting numbers are down by 87%, whilst tree sparrows have suffered a rapid decline of 95%. These figures are shocking, but what is causing our small birds populations to crash? Loss of habitat? Predation? Intensification of farming?

SongBird Survival believes that research is the key to understanding why.

We fund high quality scientific research to investigate the drivers behind these population declines and promote evidence-based solutions to restore songbird numbers.

With your support we hope to draw attention to the plight of our song and other small birds. Your membership and donations help to fund our research programme and add weight to our work with other organisations. Together, we can save our songbirds before it’s too late.

To find out more about our research and objectives, watch our YouTube video.

SBS YouTube (2)

We partner with like-minded organisations to commission targeted research into areas where scientific evidence is currently sparse, inadequate or lacking.

To date we have partnered with the University of Exeter, the University of Reading, the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, and the University of St Andrews, in projects which examine the potential causes behind songbird population decline. Such research produces high-quality, peer-reviewed research papers, contributing to ornithological and ecological knowledge in the UK.

We have exciting future projects in the pipeline, and will be bringing you news of this very soon. In the mean time, further information about our current and past research programmes can be seen on our website.

SongBird Survival: Saving Songbirds With Science