The decline of Afro-Palaearctic migrants and an assessment of potential causes

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Abstract

There is compelling evidence that Afro-Palaearctic (A-P) migrant bird populations have declined in Europe in recent decades, often to a greater degree than resident or short-distance migrants. There appear to have been two phases of decline. The first in the 1960s–1970s, and in some cases into the early 1980s, largely affected species wintering predominantly in the arid Sahelian zone, and the second since the 1980s has mostly affected species wintering in the humid tropics and Guinea forest zone. Potential drivers of these declines are diverse and are spread across and interact within the migratory cycle. Our knowledge of declining species is generally better for the breeding than the non-breeding parts of their life cycles, but there are significant gaps in both for many species. On the breeding grounds, degradation of breeding habitats is the factor affecting the demography of the largest number of species, particularly within agricultural systems and woodland and forests. In the non-breeding areas, the interacting factors of anthropogenic habitat degradation and climatic conditions, particularly drought in the Sahel zone, appear to be the most important factors. Based on our synthesis of existing information, we suggest four priorities for further research: (1) use of new and emerging tracking technologies to identify migratory pathways and strategies, understand migratory connectivity and enable field research to be targeted more effectively; (2) undertake detailed field studies in sub-Saharan Africa and at staging sites, where we understand little about distribution patterns, habitat use and foraging ecology; (3) make better use of the wealth of data from the European breeding grounds to explore spatial and temporal patterns in demographic parameters and relate these to migratory pathways and large-scale patterns of habitat change and climatic factors; and (4) make better use of remote sensing to improve our understanding of how and where land cover is changing across these extensive areas and how this impacts A-P migrants. This research needs to inform and underpin a flyway approach to conservation, evaluating a suite of drivers across the migratory cycle and combining this with an understanding of land management practices that integrate the needs of birds and people in these areas.

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