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Villages and their old farmsteads are hot spots of bird diversity in agricultural landscapes

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Summary

  1. To counteract the decline of farmland biodiversity in Europe, it is crucial to recognize habitats that are hot spots. Old rural settlements (e.g. villages) may be such important habitats, although these presumably biodiversity-rich habitats have received little attention. Socio-economic changes in central-eastern Europe since 1989 mean that old homesteads and farmsteads are being replaced by new ones.
  2. We investigated bird species composition, richness and abundance at three spatial scales (single rural property, village and landscape) in the farmland of Poland to test: (i) their association with age (built before vs. after 1989) and type of property (farmstead vs. homestead), (ii) their relationship with the increasing share of new homesteads at the village scale and (iii) the difference in diversity between the village environment and four other environments (open fields, forest–field ecotones, forests and towns) at the landscape scale.
  3. At the single property scale, 15 out of 33 species preferred old farmsteads, while only one species preferred new homesteads. Old properties hosted a higher number of species and individuals than new ones, and farmsteads hosted a higher number of species than homesteads.
  4. At the village scale, bird species richness and abundance were markedly negatively associated with the proportion of new homesteads. At the landscape scale, species composition differed between villages and the other environments, and villages had the highest average bird abundance.
  5. Synthesis and applications. Rural villages and old farmsteads are important habitats for many farmland birds; thus, the increasing number of new homesteads not associated with farmland production will likely lead to a substantial further decline of farmland bird numbers and biodiversity. To counteract this process, we recommend (i) implementing educational programmes to develop rural residents’ awareness about the importance of farmsteads and homesteads for biodiversity, (ii) including villages and farmsteads and consideration of bird-friendly habitats within these as part of EU conservation policies and (iii) compensating for changes in the structure of rural villages by increasing the amount of similar alternative habitats in the surrounding landscape.

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