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France warns of a silent spring as bird numbers plummet

By Alison Hird

French environment minister Nicolas Hulot says everyone should be ashamed of the drastic drop in the number of birds in France and has called on his fellow citizens to help reduce the use of pesticides. By killing off some 80% of insects, pesticides are helping starve birds to death. But they're not the only culprits. RFI reports from the Botanical Gardens in Paris where researchers say we should expect a quieter spring.

"Yesterday it was sunny and the birds were really excited. Males were trying to set up their territories and females were singing very loud".

Ornithologist Gregoire Loïs heads up the annual breeding bird survey here at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. It's something of a bird haven.

"Here we’ve got some starlings and wood pigeons which are not anymore restricted to woodland areas. We can hear some bluetits, and here we've got a blackbird. The song of the black bird, which is probably one of the most beautiful songs of European birds, is like a flute ... with rolls. It’s quite melancholic, even nicer than the nightingale. The nightingale sometimes sounds like a video game."

Loïs knows his birds. And he knows they're under threat. Every spring bird watchers like himself contribute to the breeding bird survey, counting birds in a standardised way to gauge the variations from year to year.

The survey looks at woodland species, urban species and open field species.

"What we could say is that while woodland species are rather stable with -3 per cent only, open field species lost a third of their population on average pver the last 15 years."

The species that are hardest hit are "skylark, yellow bunting, corn bunting, but some, like the turtle dove, have already vanished with a 80% decrease."

Because the fall is more dramatic in open field than in urban areas, scientists have conlcuded that agricultural practices are responsible for the decline.

"Because we see that pattern only for open fields and not in woodlands we believe it’s the practices, human activities, in openfields. And human activities in openfields is agriculture, mainly."

And that intensive farming system is heavily reliant on pesticides.

"If we push farmers to produce more and more, if we don’t [remunerate] them for the possible action they may have on maintaining biodiversity, we of course push them to adopt some practices which are very bad for nature," says Loïs.

While farmers may have reduced the quantity of pesticides overall in recent years, the new generation of of neonicotinoides are far more nocive.

"Neonicotinoides are very much to be blamed and colleagues which are working on game fair conclude that you have a direct morality on game fair with neonicotinoids."

For the most part birds feed off seeds, but they rely on insects to feed their fledglings. According to a study published in October 2017 75% of insect abundance has been lost in European nature preserves over the past 30 years.

"Strictly insectivorous birds have already almost disappeared," says Loïs "especially those depending on large insects. The hoopoo, the shrikes, the little owl and birds like this have already vanished from our countryside."

The need to overhaul the agricultural system

The decline has deepened since 2008/09 when a European policy that required a certain amount of a farm field to be left fallow each year was revoked.

"It’s really multi factor," says Loic. "And that’s why we say it’s the system as a whole that needs changing. And abandoning this kind of pesticides might not be enough, we have to change many things and that’s why we want to raise an alarm. But we don’t want to put all the pressure on farmers, the pressure is also on policy makers and should be on the market, we want to distribute that pressure."

Building a lifeless environment

Losing songbirds is a shame, but ultimately birds are just the visible part of a huge and damaging change to biodiversity says Loïs.

"If birds disappear it means the whole living community disappears because we are just poisoning it. They say they’re building drones to pollinate or using labour to pollinate rather than insects but the alarm is because we are just building an environment which is lifeless. Nature will keep living but humanity I’m not sure."

Under France’s 2016 biodiversity law neonicotinoids are to be banned by 2020.

Meanwhile on 27 April the European Commission is to ask member states to vote on whether to blacklist the three strains of neonicotinoid in a bid to stop the drastic deline in the number of bees.


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