29 Sep 2020

Latest research: how does human disturbance affect the lives of birds?

Join us for a bite-sized round-up of advances published in our journal Bird Conservation International. Highlights include insights into how human disturbance affects the feeding, breeding and overall health of bird populations.

Green Peafowl (Endangered) © Roger Smith / Flickr
Green Peafowl (Endangered) © Roger Smith / Flickr
By Jessica Law

How to save the Green Peafowl? Leave it alone

Given the worldwide fame of the Indian Peafowl Pavo cristatus, it’s strange to imagine a peafowl species at risk of extinction. Sadly, the Green Peafowl Pavo muticus (Endangered) is something of a forgotten sibling. Formerly common and widespread across Southeast Asia, the familiar combination of hunting, habitat destruction and human disturbance has reduced the species to a few fragmented populations. Now, the question is how best to protect these remaining strongholds. Researchers compared the viability of two populations facing very different threat and protection levels. In HuaiKhaKhaeng Wildlife Sanctuary, western Thailand, they found that the population is growing, and likely to persist for at least 100 years, thanks to dedicated protection and low human disturbance. However, the population in Yok Don National Park, south-central Vietnam – a location with high habitat disturbance and significant hunting pressure – is likely to go extinct before the end of this century. If we humans want to save this bird, it’s clear which path we need to take.


Eurasian Scops-owl © Frank Vassen / Flickr, European Roller © Bernard Dupont / Flickr

What's stressing out Europe's farmland birds?

It’s no surprise that human disturbance is harmful to wildlife – but exactly how does it happen? A study comparing two declining species, the European Roller Coracias garrulus and the Eurasian Scops-owl Otus scops, on Spanish farmland, found that both species suffered stress due to human activity – but in opposite ways. Nesting European Rollers were found to have the highest levels of stress hormones in areas with intense farming activity. However, in an interesting twist, feeding rates were also higher, suggesting disturbance was the price parents paid for gaining access to the extra prey flushed out by farming practices. The Eurasian Scops-owl, however, displayed the highest stress levels near roads: probably because they are still used at night, when the owl is awake and active.

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Bengal Florican © Dhritiman Mukherjee

The Bengal Florican needs space to strut its stuff

Sometimes, it’s not that satisfying to say “I told you so”. In 2013, experts predicted that the Bengal Florican Houbaropsis bengalensis (Critically Endangered) would be extinct in Southeast Asia within a decade. Recent surveys of Cambodia’s Tonle Sap floodplain, which holds the last population in the region, support this prediction, with a 55% decline in the number of displaying males over five years. Data indicated that Bengal Floricans tend to be lost from sites when the area of grassland falls below 25 square kilometres, and that male Bengal Floricans abandon their display territories when grassland is destroyed. Although the situation is desperate, these findings also offer a glimmer of hope, by showing that the species could disperse and colonise newly-created suitable habitat.


Get our latest research updates in Bird Conservation International, BirdLife's quarterly peer-reviewed journal.