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How to save our songbirds

Researchers link pesticide use to garden bird decline – and say gardeners can help save British songbirds from extinction
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
A house sparrow sits on a flowering bush on the Isle of Mull, Scotland

Pesticide use by British gardeners is playing a significant role in the populations of our songbirds, according to the first study of its kind, published today (06 Feb) in ​​Science Of The Total Environment.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Sussex, shows that gardeners who use pesticides can expect to see fewer birds, especially house sparrows, whose numbers were 25% lower in gardens where commonly available glyphosate was used (known by their brand names such as Roundup or Gallup).

However, the research confirms positive news that providing bird-friendly habitats in gardens increased the number of species recorded, and the abundance of individual species.

Pesticide use in UK gardens

The study, supported by charity SongBird Survival, drew on data gathered by the British Trust for Ornithology, which organises Garden BirdWatch – a citizen science garden bird recording scheme.

It examined information on pesticide use and garden management from 615 garden owners, with owners recording which brands or products they used.

The research revealed that 32% of gardens used pesticides, and that glyphosate-based herbicides made up over half of those applications (53%).

‘The UK has 22 million gardens, which collectively could be a fantastic refuge for wildlife, but not if they are overly tidy and sprayed with poisons. We just don’t need pesticides in our gardens. Many towns around the world are now pesticide free. We should simply ban use of these poisons in urban areas, following the example of France.’

DAVE GOULSON
Professor of Biology at the University of Sussex, supervisor of the research

Increase bird-friendly habitats

In gardens where metaldehyde slug pellets were used, house sparrow numbers were down by almost 40%. While this chemical was banned in 2022, it is likely to exist in garden sheds – and in the environment – for some time.

SongBird Survival funds high-quality science to better understand why Britain’s Songbird numbers have fallen by around 50% in 50 years.

As birds rely on the entire food chain for survival, gardeners concerned with biodiversity loss should rethink their use of pesticides and increase bird-friendly habitats in their gardens via the tips below.

UK bird populations

Overall, the UK breeding bird population has fallen by 19 million breeding birds since the late 1960s.

House sparrow populations have fallen by 70% since the 1970s, with the loss of 10.7 million pairs.

Gardens cover about 400,000 ha – an area bigger than all of our National Parks.

‘We’re still trying to understand the factors behind the tragic loss of British songbirds, so we are delighted this new study by Sussex University sheds light on why, and how we can help. Brits love their gardens, and as a nation of bird lovers, we must ‘think biodiversity’ and do our bit: Avoid using toxic chemicals or else we’ll continue to see house sparrows, robins, tits and other small birds continue to disappear, their songs silenced forever.’

SUSAN MORGAN
SongBird Survival CEO

Block plant pests

Bird exposure to harmful pesticides comes in both direct and indirect forms, whether through consumption of contaminated food and/or water, absorbing pesticides through the skin or through a decline in numbers of their insect prey.

Norwich-based entomologist, Ian Bedford, gives talks on how gardeners can support insects in environment-friendly ways.

‘A common question I’m asked by gardeners at this time of year is, ‘How can we control plant pests such as aphids and vine weevils without using toxic pesticides in our gardens?’ The answer is to try using environmentally friendly products instead, that deter or block plant pests from susceptible plants instead of killing them.

‘And this will be important if we are going to use our gardens to help restore Britain’s rapidly declining biodiversity, since the creatures we call ‘the plant pests’ are also an essential food source for many other wildlife.

‘Nowadays, there are many non-toxic products that could be used as an alternative to chemicals, so I would certainly encourage garden retailers to stock a selection of these in their stores and make a real difference in the choices gardeners make.’

IAN BEDFORD
Entomologist

5 tips to support garden birds

Songbird Survival has put together these top five tips for gardeners who want to support birds.

1. Ditch the pesticides! The study found that using pesticides is associated with around 12% lower house sparrow abundance. 
2. Plant berry bushes to provide natural food and shelter, increasing garden ‘quality’.
3. Have a water source in your garden, such as a bird bath or a pond (which encourages invertebrates).
4. Hedges such as brambles, hazel, honeysuckle – made up of different species that flower at different times of the year – provide year-round food and shelter for our songbirds.
5. Plant flowers such as sunflowers, jasmine, fennel and teasel that encourage insect life and songbirds.

‘It’s encouraging to find that simple measures, such as planting native shrubs and trees and creating a pond, together with avoiding the use of pesticides, really makes a measurable difference to the number of birds you will see in your garden.’

CANNELLE TASSIN DE MONTAIGU PHD
Study author

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