Habitat selection by song thrushes in stable and declining farmland populations.
Losses of farmland birds from the wider countryside have become a major conservation issue in the UK and Europe. Song thrush Turdus philomelos populations in lowland rural Britain declined by approximately 70% during 1970-95, most severely on intensively managed arable farmland. Comparison between a stable population on mixed farmland and a rapidly declining population on arable farmland revealed fewer nesting attempts each summer by birds in the declining population, and annual productivity was insufficient to maintain local population density. Inadequate food resources were the most plausible cause. We compared breeding season habitat selection (using radio-telemetry) and earthworm availability (a major component of summer diet) for song thrushes in the same two farmland populations. Territory settlement in the mixed farmland landscape involved the selection of field boundaries and woodland and the avoidance of arable crops. Field boundaries and gardens were selected in the arable landscape, while arable break crops and small areas of woodland were avoided. Habitat selection (intensity of usage) did not change through the breeding season and did not differ between study areas. Scrub, woodland edge, wet ditches and bare soil in gardens were preferred foraging habitats, while cereals were avoided. Habitat utilization (amount of usage) differed markedly between study areas. Woodland and grassland accounted for 53% of all habitat usage in the mixed farmland landscape compared with just 13% in the arable landscape. Gardens and arable crops were more heavily utilized in the arable landscape, accounting for 58% of all usage compared with 22% in the mixed landscape. Earthworm availability declined markedly between April and June as surface soils dried out. Lower earthworm availability in the arable landscape was associated with more rapid and pronounced drying of surface soils. Synthesis and applications. Lack of woodland and grassland, and the faster drying of surface soils in the arable landscape, combined to limit the availability to thrushes of key summer invertebrate prey. Loss of hedgerows, scrub and permanent grassland with livestock, and the wide-scale installation of under-field drainage systems, have probably all contributed to the decline of song thrushes on UK arable farmland. New agri-environment measures may be needed to provide the nesting cover adjacent to invertebrate-rich damp soils that song thrushes require to sustain annual productivity.