Birds in English vineyards: early results

If you’ve been following my blogs, you’ll know that I’ve been visiting 20 English vineyards in search for birds, as part of a project trying to understand how vineyard management and the surrounding landscape impact and shape the local bird communities. After over 17 hours of surveys and some time staring at rows of data on my computer screen, I’m delighted to share some results about the bird communities that live across English vineyards.

Altogether, 57 bird species were sighted across the 20 study vineyards. Some of the most common species will be a familiar sight to many of you, such as Wood Pigeons, Crows, Blackbirds or Blue tits, which were recorded on every vineyard I visited. Whether these stick to the hedges and trees around the borders of your vineyard, or hop in between the vines in search for food, these birds have made the vineyards into their homes. Other commonly sighted species included Goldfinches and Linnets, two beautiful finch species, which often travel in flocks, a dozen to over a hundred in size. I always feel joy observing these, and I spent hours observing groups of Linnets and Goldfinches sitting on trellis wires before flying down to the ground to feed among Common Groundsel or landing on the mature Thistle and Teasel plants. It was a delight watching a pair of adult Goldfinches bring their freshly-fledged chicks to feed at the base of the vines in June; the noisy family really made the vineyard come alive.

Some of you may be less fond of two of the common species – the Pheasants and Starlings. Pheasants creeping and ducking under the vines, in search for seeds and invertebrates on the ground, may be a common but an unwelcome sight, as they’re often unable to resist eating a grape or two on their way.When it comes to Starlings, you may often hear them among the vines before seeing them, but if you’re lucky you may catch a glimpse of a breath-taking murmuration against the sunset. Starlings travel and feed in groups, sometimes a hundred strong, so it’s no surprise that these made it to the list of the top-nine most commonly sighted birds in vineyards. What is interesting though, is that despite being one of the most abundant species, they were only recorded in 11 of the vineyards. This is an apt illustration of their decline, as their populations have fallen by 66% since 1970s, and their distribution is now much more patchy.

Birds around the world are declining, often due to increasing pressures from habitat loss caused by urbanisation, agricultural expansion and unsustainable land management practices. We live in a changing world and this means that birds (as well as other species) need to be regularly monitored to understand if their populations are declining or expanding. This is used to inform their conservation importance, and all species are given a conservation status: Green, Amber and Red, where the Red list includes species that require urgent conservation action, as these species are:

  1. Globally threatened
  2. Have experienced historical population declines in the UK in the 19th and 20th Centuries
  3. Their UK breeding population has declined by at least 50% in the last 25 years
  4. The size of their UK breeding range has declined by at least 50% in the last 25 years

Birds of Conservation Concern 5 report was compiled in 2021 by a partnership of UK’s leading bird conservation and monitoring organisations, including the RSPB, BTO and Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust among others. The 2021 Red list is nearly double its length in 1996, when the first report was published. As Andrew Stanbury, RSPB’s Conservation Scientist, put it “the results […] are sobering.”

The purpose of the Red List is to inform conservation priorities – it helps decide which species should receive our limited conservation funding, time and effort. This is the first step on the road to recovery, as we know that conservation efforts can work. Among the many species that are on a downward spiral, there are some which have changed their statuses from Red to Amber, and Amber to Green, as their populations have been increasing and stabilising.

There are 70 species on the Red List, and 13 of these species were sighted in English vineyards. I think that’s a great indication that English vineyards can be great habitats for some of the most threatened UK species, and are also important for their conservation.

 

Among these Red listed species sighted in vineyards are a few members of the finch family: the House Sparrow, Redpoll, Greenfinch and the Linnet. Finches frequently feed on seeds and glean insects off foliage in the breeding season. A number of species are frequent garden visitors, some stick to farmland habitats, whilst others prefer woodlands. The reasons for finch decline vary between the species, but unsustainable farmland practices such as hedgerow removal, loss of winter stubble, and improved seed maintenance around grain stores (and thus, fewer leftover seeds) are thought to have driven House Sparrow population declines. The driver of Greenfinch decline is thought to be the increased feeding of birds by people, as poor maintenance of bird feeders leads to the spread trichomonosis, a disease caused by a parasite that affects the throat and gullet of birds. It often causes death as infected birds have difficulty swallowing, and eventually breathing. Trichomonosis affects several garden birds (e.g. House Sparrows, Great tits), as well as pigeons and birds of prey, and it can easily spread through shared water and food. To help limit its spread, feeding stations for birds should be regularly cleaned.

An increasing number of Red-listed species are insect-feeders, which are suffering declines as they struggle to find enough food to survive and to feed chicks. Swifts are one such example. These are migratory birds that visit the UK to breed in the summer months. They are impressive aerial feeders and long-distance migrants, which rely on flying insects to raise chicks and to fuel their journey to the south of the Sahara. Maintaining rich insect habitat and limiting pesticide use can really help to conserve Swifts, as well as Swallows and House Martins, at your vineyard.

If you’d like to find out more about what you can do to support the bird communities at your vineyard, please visit the RSPB and BTO pages which provide some great general advice.

All photos and graphics by Natalia Zielonka. 

 

About the author:

My name’s Natalia Zielonka, and I’m a PhD candidate at the University of East Anglia. I’m supported by the UKRI BBSRC Norwich Research Park Biosciences Doctoral Training Partnership, and my supervisors are Dr Lynn Dicks (based at the University of Cambridge) and Dr Simon Butler (UEA). If you have any questions then please don’t hesitate to contact me on [email protected]k and via Twitter: @Nat_B_Zielonka.

 

 

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