The effect of supplementary winter seed food on breeding populations of farmland birds: evidence from two large-scale experiments.

Published online
21 Nov 2007
Content type
Journal article
Journal title
Journal of Applied Ecology

Siriwardena, G. M. & Stevens, D. K. & Anderson, G. Q. A. & Vickery, J. A. & Calbrade, N. A. & Dodd, S.
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Low winter food availability is probably critical in the declines of many farmland bird species in Europe, leading to the implementation of ameliorative agri-environment scheme options. To date, however, there has been no experimental test of the effectiveness of such options. We report the results of two large-scale, 3-year, controlled experiments investigating the effects of supplementary winter seed provision on breeding farmland bird abundance. In each experiment, the use of winter feeding sites by birds was monitored and the availability of alternative, seed-rich habitat in the surrounding area was measured. The Winter Food for Birds (WFFB) project also included variable levels of food provision. Breeding bird abundance was then monitored in experimental and control areas. The Bird Aid project targeted yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella L., corn bunting Emberiza calandra L. and tree sparrow Passer montanus L., while WFFB considered 11 species that used supplementary winter food. Comparisons of trends in breeding abundance between experimental and control areas revealed little evidence for positive effects of feeding, but there was great variation in the use of feeding sites by each species, and therefore in the seed quantity birds received. Declines for yellowhammer, robin and dunnock were less steep where more food was provided in WFFB areas (a fourfold difference in seed provision across 1.5 times the land area). Analysing trends with respect to weight-of-use of winter food revealed significant, positive relationships for yellowhammer (both projects) and up to five other species, depending on the control terms applied. Thus, positive effects of feeding on population change depend on the effective supply of seed to the species of interest. The hypothesis that winter food is currently limiting the populations concerned is also supported. Synthesis and applications. Effective winter food provision to farmland bird populations has the potential to halt, and perhaps to reverse, declines in abundance. In practice, this means that agri-environment measures supplying significant quantities of winter food, such as stubbles preceded by low-input cereals, should succeed in changing population trends if they provide resources at the times of greatest need and if there is sufficient uptake.

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