Arid Environment

Birdsong is good for our mental health but many bird species are in decline

In the past week the cuckoos have begun to arrive back from Africa. I’ve been loving listening to their call echo out over the patchwork of pasture and meadow, a consistently uplifting soundtrack to early summer. Meadow pipits, some of whose eggs will be ousted from their nests by baby cuckoos, are singing too. As May takes hold, the chorus of birdsong is reaching a crescendo, as birds are eagerly pairing up, defending territory, and tending to broods of eggs and nestlings. The most enthusiastic singing begins at first light, mostly by the males, announcing to the world that they have made it through the night, the territory is still theirs, and that they might even be available to prospecting females.

Some of the most tuneful songbirds in Ireland include the skylark, belting out their complex melodies from high in the air; blackcaps who return from Africa each summer, also especially accomplished singers; and blackbirds with their soulful tunes. Swifts, swallows and house martins have also just returned from winter spent afar, gliding through the sky gracefully, scooping up thousands of midges as they go.

I find that listening to effusive energy of birdsong in May is both uplifting and reassuring, as is watching swallows swooping about overhead. Scientific evidence points to experiences in nature, such as these, being an antidote to stress and at the heart of our physical and mental wellbeing.

But over the course of the past 50 years, Ireland has seen dramatic landscape changes and major declines in the populations of many native bird species. Birds give a strong indication about the general health of the natural environment, so when there is an overall decline in the diversity and abundance of many of our birds, there is cause to be concerned.

Each year, the Countryside Bird Survey monitors the most common breeding birds in the Irish landscape. The citizen science-based survey is run and coordinated by BirdWatch Ireland and funded by National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). All over the country, birders contribute data on what birds are present in their survey areas, mostly based on the calls and songs they hear. Some species are faring well, such as blackcaps and colourful goldfinches. But other familiar farmland birds such as skylark, greenfinch, and stonechat are exhibiting serious declines. For many of our native birds, their habitats are disappearing so rapidly that they cannot cope with the changes. Even starlings, such familiar birds, loved for their awe inspiring murmurations, have declined a great deal in recent decades.

Wading birds, such as curlew, lapwing and snipe, are experiencing some of the most severe declines of all. In the 1970s, these birds were widespread. Of the twelve wader species breeding in Ireland, eleven are now in serious decline. Breeding curlew are on the verge of extinction in Ireland.

Many birds of prey are also suffering alarming declines, including kestrels, barn owls, hen-harriers and merlins, Ireland’s smallest birds of prey. These apex predators are sentinels for the health of the natural environment. Most of the declines can be attributed to land use changes and the intensification of agriculture, which has caused the reduction in the extent and quality of many habitats needed by these majestic birds. Of course, there are good news stories too, such as the reintroductions of white-tailed sea eagles and golden eagles, and the spread of buzzards, but this does not compensate for the loss of owls or kestrels.

Common kestrel

Unfortunately it’s not just bird populations showing such alarming trends. Bats, bees, butterflies, dragonflies, wild salmon, even sharks out at sea: almost every group of animals we have assessed is being impacted by a multitude of rapid changes that humans have imposed on nature in recent decades. All in just one generation.

The good news is that there is still time to turn these trends around and to save many species from extinction. There are many excellent examples of effective conservation initiatives in recent years, many of them community led and operated. The BRIDE project in north-east Co Cork is implementing a promising results-based approach to conserve, enhance and restore habitat in lowland intensive farmland. Pollinator projects all over the country are bringing people together to protect and create habitats for bees and butterflies, including the many communities, gardeners, shops and farmers who are taking action to through All-Ireland Pollinator Plan.

Birdwatch Ireland has been special conservation projects for terns since the 1980s which have brought these amazing birds, the world’s most impressive long distance migrants, back from the brink of extinction here. Dozens of peatland restoration projects have gotten underway in the past few years, a big step up from the two restoration projects that the Irish Peatland Conservation Council pioneered in the 1990s. There are now 10 ‘Rivers Trusts’ operational in Ireland, each a community-led charity started by local people to care for their local rivers.

These are just a sample of the many conservation initiatives underway across Ireland. Each project that protects and restores habitats for birds and biodiversity is shining a tiny spotlight on what is possible. But most of these have been battling for success, swimming against the tide for many years. Each of these projects, and many more not mentioned here, demonstrate how conservation can be done, by combining the knowledge of experts, the insight of environmental groups and the enthusiasm of individuals and communities.

Last week the long promised plan for the renewal of the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) was announced. After decades of under-resourcing and neglect, and despite committed staff, it is widely accepted that the NPWS has been unfit for purpose for a long time. The announcement by Minister Malcom Noonan has been widely welcomed and is expected to create an organization with ‘a strong voice to speak for nature’.

A well-functioning agency will help in the effective delivery of so many conservation initiatives already underway. With a combination of structural reform, additional staff, and greater resourcing, the NPWS might finally be in a position to engage widely and safeguard fast disappearing populations of birds, bees, butterflies, whales, sharks and the myriad of habitats in which they occur. These are the basis for our health and prosperity too.

Ireland is very fortunate to have such a wonderful range of very special species and habitats within its territory. If this action plan for the NPWS is properly implemented, there is hope. And not a moment too soon.

  • Anja Murray is an ecologist, broadcaster, regular presenter on ‘Eco Eye’ on RTÉ 1 and writes the weekly ‘Nature File’ on RTÉ Lyric FM.

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