New European Breeding Bird Atlas, a milestone for biodiversity research and nature conservation

A new European breeding bird atlas (EBBA2), an initiative of the European Bird Census Council (EBCC), is published with updated information on the distribution and abundance of all bird species in Europe, with high scientific standards and a citizen science approach.

New European Breeding Bird Atlas, a milestone for biodiversity research and nature conservation
European roller (Coracias garrulus), part of the European breeding bird atlas (EBBA2). Image: Xavier Riera.

The new publication has been presented the 3rd of December 2020 and is based on its predecessor, the EBCC atlas of European breeding birds, published in 1997 based on data from the 1980s, as well as to document changes since the first atlas.

During the fieldwork period 2013–2017 EBBA2 recorded 539 native bird species breeding in Europe, 59 of which are mainly concentrated in Europe (near-endemics) and 40 are species that can be found only in Europe (endemic). There are few species as widespread as White Wagtail Motacilla alba or Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus, which were recorded in over 85% of all 50-km squares surveyed in EBBA2. More than 50% of the species occurred in less than 10% of all surveyed squares, so that all countries and regions have their own specific responsibility towards this common wealth.

One in 10 of European species, introduced from elsewhere

Data from the Atla’s second edition show that 57 non-native species breed in Europe, i.e. one in ten of European breeding bird species has been introduced from elsewhere; 39 of these species were documented for the first time in the last three decades.

But despite pronounced changes in European landscapes and climate, very few native species disappeared completely, e.g. the Common Buttonquail Turnix sylvaticus, and the same applies to species naturally colonising the European continent, like the Little Swift Apus affinis. However, we observed marked changes in the European avifauna in the last 30 years. According to EBBA2 analyses, 35% of all native species increased the area where they breed, among them Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis, Citrine Wagtail Motacilla citreola or Mediterranean Gull Larus melanocephalus. On the other hand, 25% of species have shown a decrease in area, e.g. Ruff Calidris pugnax, Great Bustard Otis tarda, European Roller Coracias garrulus or Ortolan Bunting Emberiza hortulana, the species shown on the book cover. Furthermore, the breeding ranges of European birds have shifted northwards by an average of 28 km (ca 1 km per year).

New European Breeding Bird Atlas, a milestone for biodiversity research and nature conservation
25% of the species have shown a decrease in area, as the Ortolan Bunting (Emberiza hortulana). Image: European Bird Census Council.

Sergi Herrando –from the EBBA2 coordination team and researcher at the Catalan Ornithological Institute (ICO) and at CREAF– says: “New land uses and climate change appear to be the main drivers of the observed changes and will need to be investigated further. Specifically, northern Europe has gained species while the south has experienced losses, often of species of birds typical of agricultural lands and grassland, particularly in the Mediterranean region as well as in western and central Europe”.

This is in line with existing information about the decline of many farmland bird populations due to intensive agricultural practices. As many species shift their ranges northwards, species richness of forest birds is increasing, probably also as a result of land abandonment resulting in forest regrowth. Many other aspects are treated in the book. For instance, specialists of montane grasslands and tundra, mires and moorland are losing ground in substantial parts of their ranges.

Sergi Herrando

“New land uses and climate change appear to be the main drivers of the observed changes and will need to be investigated further”

SERGI HERRANDO, EBBA2 coordination team and researcher at the Catalan Ornithological Institute and at CREAF.

Another CREAF researcher involved in this work is Lluís Brotons, from CREAF-CTFC, for whom “the Atlas is a dream come true that has involved 120,000 people”.

Petr Voříšek –from the EBBA2 coordination team at the Czech Society for Ornithology–explains that environmental policy may actually work: “Many species of European conservation concern suffered losses in distribution but there are also positive stories indicating that nature conservation works. Many species protected by international legislation such as the White-tailed Sea-eagle, Haliaeetus albicilla, have increased their distribution in Europe, visible also for instance in the increase in the breeding distribution of a number of species of inland wetlands that benefited from better protection of the species and their habitats (for instance Eurasian Bittern, Botaurus stellaris, or Pied Avocet, Recurvirostra avocetta).”

New European Breeding Bird Atlas, a milestone for biodiversity research and nature conservation
EBBA2 is also one of the biggest-ever citizen science projects focusing on mapping biodiversity. Image: European breeding bird atlas.

From Azores to Ural Mountains

EBBA2 presents a new baseline on the European avifauna, with an unprecedented geographical coverage from the Azores to the Ural Mountains. EBBA2 is also one of the biggest-ever citizen science projects focusing on mapping biodiversity. In total, around 120,000 fieldworkers contributed data to the atlas, the great majority of them on a voluntary basis. Verena Keller –from the Swiss Ornithological Institute, EBCC board member, EBBA2 project manager and the lead author of the book– comments: “EBBA2 was only possible thanks to the EBCC network of organisations and individuals from all corners in Europe, all dedicated to a common goal, cooperating across all borders and barriers.”

Verena Keller

“The European breeding bird atlas has been possible thanks to the network of organisations and individuals from all corners in Europe dedicated to a common goal: cooperating across all borders and barriers”

VERENA KELLER, lead author and project manager of the Atlas, EBCC board member and from the Swiss Ornithological Institute.

The results of EBBA2 are published in a comprehensive book in partnership with Lynx Edicions. An on-line interactive version of the atlas maps is planned to be published at a later stage. Mark Eaton –EBCC chair– looks into the future: “This incredible new book, and the database that underpins it, will serve to enable further research and support conservation of birds and other biodiversity across Europe for decades to come.”

Iván Ramirez –Senior Head of Conservation at BirdLife Europe and Central Asia– comments: “This Atlas is a keystone publication that should guide future conservation work in our region. It helps practitioners to understand the changes of distribution of all species over the years and so it clearly highlights where species conservation and habitat restoration activities should happen in our region.”

New European Breeding Bird Atlas, a milestone for biodiversity research and nature conservation
Spotless Starling (Sturnus unicolor), a species found only in the western Mediterranean. Image: Xavier Riera

Juan Carlos del Moral –Coordinator of Citizen Science at SEO / BirdLife– assures that “the new European Atlas is a great advance in updating the distribution of all bird species in Europe. A great job, unthinkable without the participation of thousands of SEO / BirdLife volunteers who have collaborated with their time and dedication in field work throughout Spain all these years”.

The Atlas has been possible thanks to the dedication of people who have worked in the field, the national coordinators, people who have contributed to the analysis and presentation of the data and the donor entities and individuals, among other collaborations.

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