Toxins and deforestation reduce Estonian bird populations

In the 1960s, the blue roller was still a frequent sight in Estonia's rural landscape, with the last known breeding in south-east Estonia in 2010.
In the 1960s, the blue roller was still a frequent sight in Estonia's rural landscape, with the last known breeding in south-east Estonia in 2010. Source: Arne Ader,

A recent international study revealed that 50 percent of the world's bird species are in decline. The bird population in Estonia has also declined over the last 30 years. This is true not only of rare and endangered species, but also of more common ones.

Estonia had a greater diversity of bird species historically; however, the abundance of farmland, forest birds and waterfowl has decreased in comparison to thirty years ago.

Marko Mägi, an expert in avian ecology at the University of Tartu, said that the number of birds in Estonia began to decline after the country regained its independence. "We entered the capitalist social order at a big scale and our agriculture and forestry changed dramatically; all environments are now managed more intensively in a result," he explained.

Kaarel Võhandu, the head of the Estonian Ornithological Society (EOS), said that the accession of Estonia to the European Union has had a significant impact on bird diversity. "As a result of our entry into the European Union, agricultural subsidies increased, permitting us to use more pesticides and fertilizers. The fields are also bigger and more uniform," he said.

Climate change could also explain the decline of bird populations, but in this case, bird species that would otherwise live in the south could arrive in Estonia, Mägi said. This has not occurred.

The researcher said that based on studies of individual species in Europe, local habitat changes are more important than global climate change. "What has occurred in the human environment is more important than the effects of climate change," he continued.

Some bird species, such as the European roller (Coracias garrulus), which lived in Estonia in the 1950s and 1960s but has not been seen now for ten years, have already disappeared. Mägi said that the roller's extinction is linked to the rise of intensive farming. Also the black stork may become extinct in the near future.

Võhandu said that birds reflect the overall state of the ecosystem. "The fact that bird populations are declining indicates that something is wrong with the ecosystem. Either there aren't enough insects or there's some other issue. A decline in bird populations reflects the state of wildlife."

Mägi added that changes in the bird fauna are bound to have an impact on humans. "We're about on the same level as birds in the food chain, but studying birds and observing changes in them is much easier than studying humans and society. Birds foretell the future. They show us what will happen to our kind very soon," he stated.

Recently, there has been much discussion about reducing volumes. Also afflicted by intensive logging are birds, particularly forest birds, who lose their habitats and are unable to adjust to quickly changing conditions.

Mägi explained that while some forest birds are resilient, many species of forest birds need the older forest. "They cannot adjust quickly to change. It might take between 60 and 70 years for a forest to mature. Sadly, no bird can wait that long to feel comfortable in the forest. Most bird species in our forest birds have shorter life span," Mägi said.

But what measures could be taken to protect bird species? Võhandu said that it is crucial to decrease the use of all types of toxins. This is done so that fields could attract various insects. "The second step is to restore mosaic habitats, so that there are no vast expanses of grassland, but rather field boundaries, little woodland areas, grass strips and ditches," Võhandu elaborated. "The more diverse the landscape, the more habitats there are for different species to thrive in."


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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