Industrial Farming a Cause of Plummeting Bird Populations

Since 1980 the number of birds that typically inhabit Europe’s farmlands has shrunk by 55 percent.

This story appears in the September 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.

As industrial-scale farms flourish in the European Union, its fields have grown quiet—robbed of the birds that once filled them with song. Since 1980 the number of birds that typically inhabit Europe’s farmlands has shrunk by 55 percent. And in the last 17 years alone, French farmland-bird counts dropped by a third—a “level approaching an ecological catastrophe,” according to a recent survey.

Intensified agriculture is driving the losses. Habitats where birds once bred, nested, and wintered now bear crops, and pesticides have killed off birds’ prey. In the past 27 years Germany has lost 75 percent of its flying insects by mass. Even avian species that typically adapt to humans have dwindled on farms, suggesting that the land is less able to sustain all kinds of birds.

To curb the losses of farmland birds, researchers contend that agriculture must be remade in nature’s image: less dependent on the addition of chemicals, more diverse in its flora, and more hospitable to local fauna.

French farmland birds are disappearing

DECLINE in Population

(2001-2017)

Increase

-60%

-40%

-20%

0%

20%

Meadow pipit

68%

DECLINE

Whinchat

Yellowhammer

Northern lapwing

Gray partridge

Red-legged partridge

Common quail

Rook

Eurasian linnet

Eurasian skylark

European stonechat

Corn bunting

Western yellow wagtail

Wood lark

Eurasian kestrel

Crested lark

Red-backed shrike

Cirl bunting

Northern wheatear

Common buzzard

Common whitethroat

Eurasian hoopoe

22%

Increase

Tawny pipit

Due to single-crop fields and the overuse of

pesticides. Populations of insect-feeders like

meadow pipits and whinchats are in free fall.

A recent study showed that red-legged

partridges are poisoned by seeds treated

with the insecticide fipronil.

The switch to taller and denser cereal

crops is forcing Eurasian skylarks to look

for other nesting sites.

Wetland drainage and the removal of

grasslands for crops drive the decline of

the western yellow wa

The European range of the Eurasian

hoopoe is most likely expanding

northward due to a warming climate.

Beyond France, beyond farms

In France, farmland birds have had the steepest

decline, a trend also observed in North America

and Asia. Birds preferring other habitats are also

disappearing. Generalist birds increased in

number as they moved into the emptied habit-

ats, but recently they too are stable or declining.

Birds Declining

Increasing

(2001-2017, France)

Farmland-

specialist birds*

19 species

4

Urban-

specialist birds

11

11

Woodland-

specialist birds

9

4

Generalist birds

6

8

 *Specialist birds prefer one type of habitat,

while generalist birds do not.

ART: DAISY CHUNG, NGM STAFF. Ryan T. Williams, NGM staff

Sources: Benoît Fontaine, National Museum of

Natural History, France; Ana Lopez-Antia,

University of Antwerp; BirdLife International

DECLINE in Population (2001-2017)

Increase

-60%

-40%

-20%

0%

20%

French farmland

birds are disappearing

Meadow pipit

68%

DECLINE

due to single-crop fields and the

overuse of pesticides. Populations of

insect-feeders like meadow pipits

and whinchats are in free fall.

Whinchat

Yellowhammer

Northern lapwing

Gray partridge

A recent study showed that

red-legged partridges are

poisoned by seeds treated with

the insecticide fipronil.

Red-legged partridge

Common quail

Rook

The switch to taller and

denser cereal crops is forcing

Eurasian skylarks to look for

other nesting sites.

Beyond France, beyond farms

Eurasian linnet

In France, farmland birds have had the steepest

decline, a trend also observed in North America

and Asia. Birds preferring other habitats are also

disappearing. Generalist birds increased in

number as they moved into the emptied habitats,

but recently they too are stable or declining.

Eurasian skylark

European stonechat

Corn bunting

Birds Declining

Increasing

(2001-2017, France)

Farmland-

specialist birds*

Western yellow wagtail

19 species

4

Urban-

specialist birds

11

11

Wood lark

Woodland-

specialist birds

9

4

Eurasian kestrel

Generalist birds

6

8

Wetland drainage and the

removal of grasslands for crops

drive the decline of the

western yellow wagtail.

Crested lark

Red-backed shrike

Cirl bunting

Northern wheatear

Common buzzard

Common whitethroat

 *Specialist birds prefer one type of habitat,

while generalist birds do not.

Eurasian hoopoe

The European range of the

Eurasian hoopoe is most

likely expanding northward

due to a warming climate.

ART: DAISY CHUNG, NGM STAFF. Ryan T. Williams, NGM staff

Sources: Benoît Fontaine, National Museum of

Natural History, France; Ana Lopez-Antia,

University of Antwerp; BirdLife International

Tawny pipit

22% Increase