Palearctic-African migratory birds have suffered substantial declines

The European Roller Coracias garrulus declined in Europe by more than 20 % from 1970 to 1990 and by another 20 % in the 1990s —it is now considered to be globally Near Threatened. © Simon Aspinall

Afro-Palearctic migratory birds have suffered substantial declines over the past 30 years owing to reduced over-winter survival in Africa, habitat degradation in Europe, hunting and the effects of climate change.

Populations of migratory birds that breed in temperate regions and winter in the tropics have suffered sustained and often severe declines over the past few decades. One recent analysis of continent-wide survey data from the Birds in Europe database (Tucker and Heath 1994, BirdLife International 2004) for the period between 1970 and 2000 has highlighted this decline (Sanderson et al. 2006). Over the 30 year study period, 48 (40%) of 119 Afro-Palearctic migrant species (long-distance migrants that breed in Europe and winter in sub-Saharan Africa) exhibited substantial negative population trends. Migratory birds appear to be the group most affected by these population declines, as no such pattern is apparent for non-migratory species (residents and short-distance migrants) breeding in the same habitats in Europe.

A combination of threats including habitat degradation on breeding grounds in Europe, hunting in southern Europe and North Africa and the loss of staging areas is likely to be influencing the declines (Sanderson et al. 2006). There is also some evidence that reduced over-winter survival in dry, open habitats in sub-Saharan Africa may be a contributing factor. Habitat destruction, desertification and lower resource availability in the Sahel zone due to reduced rainfall and increased agricultural intensification may explain these lower over-winter survival rates. Between 1970 and 2000, agricultural practices intensified at a high rate—the area of land in sub-Saharan Africa utilised for agriculture increased by only 4%, but fertiliser consumption almost trebled and pesticide imports increased five-fold (FAOSTAT). As global food demand is predicted to double over the next 50 years, agricultural intensification is likely to increase even further, so the threat it poses to migrant species is likely to continue (Tilman et al. 2002).

Climate change may also affect some populations by uncoupling the timing of resource availability from the timing of migration (see, e.g., Schaub et al. 2005). Long-distance migrants are most likely to be affected by such asynchrony in phenology, as evidence suggests they may be less able to adapt to change than resident non-migratory species due to their smaller brain sizes and lower problem-solving abilities (Schultz et al. 2005, Sol et al. 2005).



BirdLife International (2004) Birds in Europe: population estimates, trends and conservation status. Cambridge, UK: BirdLife International.
FAOSTAT database of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (
Sanderson, F. J., Donald, P. F., Pain, D. J., Burfield, I. J. and van Bommel, F. P. J. (2006) Long-term population declines in Afro-Palearctic migrant birds. Biol Conserv. 131: 93–105. 
Schaub, M., Kania, W. and Köppen, U. (2005) Variation of primary production during winter induces synchrony in survival rates in migratory white storks Ciconia ciconia. J. Anim Ecol. 74: 656–666.
Schultz, S., Bradbury, R. B., Evans, K. L., Gregory, R. D. and Blackburn, T. M. (2005) Brain size and resource specialization predict long-term population trends in British birds. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. Ser. B 272: 2305–2311.
Sol, D., Lefebvre, L. and Rodríguez-Teijeiro, J. D. (2005) Brain size, innovative propensity and migratory behaviour in temperate Palearctic birds. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. Ser. B 272: 1433–1441.
Tilman, D., Cassman, K. G., Matson, P. A., Naylor, R. and Polasky, S. (2002) Agricultural sustainability and intensive production practices. Nature 418: 671–677.
Tucker, G. M. and Heath, M. F. (1994) Birds in Europe: their conservation status. Cambridge, UK: BirdLife International (BirdLife Conservation Series 03).

Compiled 2008

Recommended Citation:
BirdLife International (2008) Palearctic-African migratory birds have suffered substantial declines. Presented as part of the BirdLife State of the world's birds website. Available from: . Checked: