Research highlight

Ecology: Road exposure linked to variation in bird populations in Great Britain

Nature Communications

July 8, 2020

Rarer, small-bodied and migrant bird species, such as meadow pipits and lapwings, are negatively associated with road exposure in Great Britain reports a Nature Communications paper. The study suggests that road networks create environmental conditions that benefit common bird species (including rooks, blackbirds and robins) at the expense of others and may bring about the simplification of avian communities.

Great Britain has one of the densest road networks in the world, with 80% of land found within a kilometre of a road. Road construction can lead to fragmentation and changes in local habitats with effects on local populations of wildlife. However, the impacts of roads on wildlife populations at national levels are poorly understood.

Using data from the UK Breeding Bird Survey, Sophia Cooke and colleagues assessed the abundance of 75 bird species in relation to roads across Great Britain. The authors found that the abundance of 58 species was significantly associated with road exposure, of which 33 species were negatively affected. As exposure to roads increased, Cooke and co-authors observed that species with smaller national populations decreased in numbers whereas common species increased. For example, the meadow pipit experienced a 31% decrease in abundance, whereas the Eurasian bullfinch experienced a 28% increase when road exposure was taken into account. When major and minor roads were analysed separately, 81% of species found near major roads were negatively affected.

The authors argue that the compression of vulnerable species into areas of low road density may lead to declines and extinctions in countries with high road densities in the future.

doi: 10.1038/s41467-020-16899-x

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