Cerutti has dispensed with pesticides and allowed vegetation in wetland areas to regrow. Besides the black-tailed godwits, there are bitterns and lapwings—both also in decline. And no, she doesn’t make as much money as she might if she were driven to maximize profits on the same tract of land. It doesn’t matter. “Not every farmer can do what we’re doing, but I think that it’s important to do something,” she says. A neighbor was recently inspired by Cerutti’s efforts to stop spraying places that border her farm with glyphosate, an incredibly potent herbicide. “I think it’s a great step,” says Cerutti.
Speak to birdwatchers and researchers elsewhere in Europe and you’ll hear many examples of birds that were common just a generation or two ago that are now on the edge. Take the corncrake, whose song was once heard frequently across Ireland. There are now just a few hundred individuals left in a handful of locations.
“To be utterly frank, the situation is pretty awful,” says Rob Robinson, a senior scientist at the British Trust for Ornithology who is based in East Anglia. He mentions the willow warbler. Robinson has been putting rings on the legs of these little birds and releasing them, a common monitoring technique, for years.
“We catch one or two a year instead of 15 or 20,” he says, explaining how things have changed since he started the work. He also remembers seeing flocks of finches on farmland as a child. “Those I see very rarely these days.” Nightingales and turtle doves also used to be plentiful around the British countryside in spring. Now they are all but gone.
Brunner adds: “We are not losing just the birds, we are losing the insects, reptiles, amphibians, a lot of plants. We get very, very simplified and impoverished ecosystems.” That means it can be easier for invasive species to spread, he says. Crops become more dependent on chemistry and human intervention—and also more susceptible to diseases.
There’s also what Brunner calls the “moral issue.” Sights and sounds that have been part of the landscape, and of human culture, for millennia are suddenly fading away. Turtle doves are mentioned multiple times in the bible, he notes.
The single biggest cause of the decline in bird populations, he says, is the intensification of farming. High pesticide use, the loss of hedgerows and margins where insects and birds can live, and hyper-efficient harvesting are all problematic. Robinson says that around 70 years ago it was common for wheat farmers to leave 1 or 2 percent of their crop on the ground in fields.
“That doesn’t sound like very much, but if you add up large areas of farmland, it can sustain large bird populations,” he says. Technology and harvesting practices have become so good at catching every grain that this food source just isn’t there anymore.
In May, Dakos and colleagues published a large study in which they analyzed 37 years of bird-population data from 20,000 sites across 28 European nations. The team considered the growing size of towns and cities, the loss of forested areas, temperature rises, and the intensification of farming as key factors. In the researchers’ analysis of population trends for 170 bird species, all of these anthropogenic pressures had some impact, but it was intensive farming that appeared to have the strongest correlation with plummeting bird numbers. All over the dataset were struggling farmland bird species.