Demographic and environmental causes of the decline of rural Song Thrushes Turdus philomelos in lowland Britain


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We review current knowledge of demographic mechanisms and environmental factors implicated in the population decline of Song Thrushes Turdus philomelos in rural Britain since the mid-1970s, and present new analyses of regional variation in population changes. Increased mortality during the first year of life (from fledging to recruitment) is highlighted as a potential demographic mechanism having driven the population decline, while Song Thrushes in a rapidly declining farmland population were making too few nesting attempts to sustain local numbers. Breeding Song Thrushes are strongly associated with non-cropped habitats such as woodland edge, field boundaries, gardens and scrub; they make substantial use of grassland, but avoid cereals when foraging. Earthworms constitute a key component of Song Thrush diet and the availability of this prey is strongly influenced by moisture levels in surface soils. Several lines of evidence suggest that dry surface soils during summer are deleterious to the productivity and survival of Song Thrushes, and regional variation in the rates of population change in Britain during 1970–86 was negatively correlated with the extent of under-field drainage on farmland (the main function of which is to promote the drying of surface soils). Increasing dryness of agricultural soils and the loss of grassland from eastern arable counties have probably both contributed to the declines of rural Song Thrushes in Britain. Loss of hedgerows and scrub, and the degradation of woodland may also have contributed to population declines but the role of predators remains unclear. Recovery of rural Song Thrush populations requires challenging new policy initiatives that should aim to restore nesting cover (scrub and woodland understorey), grazed grassland in arable-dominated areas and damper soils in summer.