The selection of stubble fields by wintering granivorous birds reflects vegetation cover and food abundance.
1. Fields left fallow after harvest (i.e. stubble fields) support high wintering densities of many species of granivorous bird. We examined correlates of use by eight such species of different types of intensively managed wheat and barley stubble fields, organic wheat fields and set-aside fields on mixed lowland farmland in central England. Field occupancy was studied in relation to the physical characteristics of fields and seed abundance. 2. Higher seed abundance was associated with greater occupancy by linnet Carduelis cannabina, grey partridge Perdix perdix, chaffinch Fringilla coelebs, yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella, reed bunting Emberiza schoeniclus and corn bunting Miliaria calandra. Larger areas of bare earth within stubble fields were associated with greater occupancy by linnet, yellowhammer, reed bunting and corn bunting, but lower occupancy by woodpigeon Columba palumbus. 3. On conventional intensively farmed sites, seed abundance and area of bare earth were significantly greater on barley stubbles than on wheat stubbles. 4. Seed numbers fell throughout the winter in all stubble types, although reductions were greatest on intensive barley stubbles, intermediate on intensive wheat stubble and lowest on undersown organic wheat stubbles. 5. Within fields occupied by linnets, areas used for feeding had significantly greater quantities of seeds known to be important in their diet. Feeding areas also had a greater area of bare earth than randomly selected 'non-feeding areas'. 6. Linnets and reed buntings were rarely found on fields where densities of weed seeds important in their diets fell below 250 seeds m-2. In autumn, yellowhammers and grey partridges rarely fed on fields where cereal grain density was below 50 m-2. However, in spring, both species fed on these fields irrespective of grain density, perhaps indicating a switch to other food sources. 7. We suggest that land managers wishing to maximize the value of overwinter stubble fields for granivorous birds locate such fields where there is a substantial natural regeneration of weed flora and where previous cropping (e.g. barley) is likely to offer a sparse stubble with substantial areas of bare ground.