Study Finds a Lower Abundance of Songbirds in Poorer Urban Areas in England

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A recently published study looked at the spatial relationship between people and birds across urban areas in Southern England in order to understand patterns of abundance and species richness among birds in populated areas.  The study further differentiated the presence of birds that causes a cultural disservice, such as aggression towards people or noisiness, and a cultural service, such as pleasure in bird watching and listening to vocal calls of birds.  The researchers focused their study area in the “Cranfield triangle,” a region in southern England, UK that includes the towns of Milton Keynes, Luton and Bedford.  The area represents a range of housing densities and socioeconomic areas.  The researchers divided this urban area into 500 × 500 m square tiles which were then categorized using remote sensing into percentage of vegetation and built cover.  Five tiles to survey for bird diversity and abundance were then randomly selected from each category.  Birds that were surveyed were divided into the two categories of cultural service and cultural disservice.  Each surveyed tile was assigned a population density value and household wage based on data pulled from UK governmental sources.

The researchers found that increased human population density had a negative impact on service bird richness.  The presence of open space had a positive influence on service bird richness. The study found that suburban areas with medium density housing (and a higher percentage of green space) had the most abundance of service birds while denser urban areas had a higher abundance of disservice birds (and a lower rate of green space).

Human population density (500 × 500 m) and (a) abundance and (b) richness of sets of avian cultural service (solid line and circles) and cultural disservice (dashed line and hollow circles) providers. Source: Cox el al., 2018

Human population density (500 × 500 m) and (a) abundance and (b) richness of sets of avian cultural service (solid line and circles) and cultural disservice (dashed line and hollow circles) providers. Source: Cox el al., 2018

Household income also seems to be correlated with service bird richness. The researchers found that “found that weekly household income was positively correlated with an increased ratio of cultural service to disservice species.”  This has implications for how people perceive birds in general with the researchers noting: “Differences in the distributions of service and disservice species, and the extremely low ratios of birds to people particularly in socioeconomically deprived areas, mean that people there have few opportunities for contact with birds, and the contact that they do have is equally likely to be negative as positive for human well-being.

The Study:

Cox, D. T., Hudson, H. L., Plummer, K. E., Siriwardena, G. M., Anderson, K., Hancock, S., … & Gaston, K. J. (2018). Covariation in urban birds providing cultural services or disservices and people. Journal of Applied Ecology.

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