In a new guest blog published today, Riccardo Alba, PhD Student at the University of Turin discusses his latest paper. His study looked at which drivers have been most consistently associated with positive or negative demographic responses in 34 European mountain and upland bird species.

European mountain and upland areas account for around 20% of Europe’s landmass. They are unique and wonderful ecosystems, not only for the people who enjoy a nice hiking in these landscapes, but also for the biodiversity that thrives in these still untouched (most of them) places. In fact, mountains are very important hotspots of endemism and diversity at the global scale.

Mountain landscapes offer a variety of habitats in a comparatively small area, which change along an altitudinal gradient © Riccardo Alba

Iconic birds occur in these regions, such as the majestic bearded vulture Gypaetus barbatus but also smaller passerines like the white-winged snowfinch Montifringilla nivalis which is the perfect example of a highly adapted organism to the harsh climatic conditions found at high elevations.

Bird species dwelling in the mountains tend to be less well-studied than species present in the lowlands, mainly due to the challenges of carrying out research in these generally hard-to-reach and inhospitable locations. Nevertheless, these species face a wide range of threats, and it is crucial to investigate what are the drivers and the threats that they face in order to devise priorities for conservation action and research.

Bearded vulture on the left, white-winged snowfinch on the right ©Mauro Gialdini

Systematic literature review

For this purpose, we first identified 34 European mountain and upland species by checking the species ecology and that more than 50% of their breeding range overlapped mountain surface. We then selected a list of drivers that we considered to be the most important in affecting the species demography. We subsequently reviewed the literature regarding these species in order to evaluate the effects, whether positive or negative, of different drivers on bird populations.

Flowchart of the systematic literature review

It turns out that quarry species or the ones which are generally regarded as charismatic by people, such as gamebirds or raptors respectively, were the most studied species whilst little specialised passerines confined to the most extreme environments in the Arctic or on Alpine peaks are not so well-represented in the literature.

Drivers and trend analysis

Most negative effects were highlighted for drivers that had a direct effect on mortality or breeding success such as hunting practices, collision with energy generation facilities, predation by competitive species or human disturbance and poisoning.

Hunting had the highest magnitude of all drivers, which included both legal hunting activity such as grouse shooting on managed moorland in UK or in boreal forests in Fennoscandia and illegal persecution of protected species, such as raptors. Energy generation can have negative impacts on bird demography too, mainly due to collisions, but also because of habitat alteration and disturbance of infrastructures.

On the other hand, other drivers such as climate change and land-use changes, which impact the species over longer timescales, had a less visible impact on populations but still negative and with increasing trends during the last decades. Last but not least, we also highlighted the positive effects of management practices such as predator control on some species.

Wind turbines can have a negative impact on birds, especially on large soaring raptors but not only ©Felix Brönnimann

In conclusion, we found that there is clear evidence for the effects of some drivers while we need to collect longer-term and more detailed data on others. We also highlighted how there is an astonishing lack of studies for some species (such as the wallcreeper Tichodroma muraria and the alpine accentor Prunella collaris to cite a few).

Our lab from the University of Turin is leading research to study how environmental change and climate change will affect mountain species in the future. In particular, we focus on how changes in snow conditions (especially avalanches) will impact bird communities. For the last 5 years we have been looking at northern wheatear Oeananthe oenanthe in the Western Italian Alps, studying the entire life cycle and how this species survives in the rocky grasslands at high elevation. This is fundamental to assess how climate and land-use changes will affect the species in the near future. You can read our latest publication here.

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