Bird-friendly meadowland management measurably benefits godwits according to researchers at the University of Groningen, based on four years of field work conducted in southwest Friesland. An egg laid in farmland with a higher water table, greater plant variety among the grass and a later mowing date has no less than a 17 times greater chance to lead to a mature godwit the following spring than an egg laid in highly productive, intensively farmed fields, in other words farmland managed in traditional fashion.
Researchers at the University of Groningen Department of Animal Ecology studied 850 godwit pairs between 2007 and 2010 on 8,741 ha of farmland in southwest Friesland. Twenty percent of this farmland was under bird-friendly management by private farmers and the nature preservation organizations It Fryske Gea and the National Forest Service (Staatsbosbeheer). Godwits were given coloured rings for the research, which meant they could be individually distinguished from a distance, and the survival rates of the chicks and mature birds could be monitored from year to year.
The 20% of the farmland under bird-friendly management was home to 60% of the breeding godwit population. The specially managed farmland was a source of new godwits during the study period, while the traditionally managed farmland was an ecological 'sink', where on balance more godwits died than successfully hatched. The major difference between the two types of meadowland was in the survival rate of eggs and chicks. Fifty-four percent of the eggs laid in farmland under bird-friendly management hatched successfully, as opposed to 32% of the eggs laid in traditionally managed areas.
A chick hatched in a bird-friendly meadow proved to have a ten times better chance to return as a breeding bird the following year. All in all, an egg laid in a bird-friendly meadow turned out to be 17 times more successful the following year. There was no difference in the survival rate of the mature birds in the two types of meadowland.
Apparently the godwits are aware of the better chances to be had. In general, the birds are very faithful to their nest sites. Most nests are within 300 metres of last year's nest site. However, if moves were made by godwits, this was more often from traditionally managed meadows to bird-friendly managed ones (23% of all breeding pairs), than vice versa (4% of all breeding pairs), despite the great difference in area.
Stemming the decline
On a national scale, the godwit population is still doing very poorly, with numbers dropping annually by over 5%. Stemming the decline is best achieved by investing in nest and chick survival. Once fully mature, godwits seem to have few problems surviving.
Meadow birds do have a future in the Netherlands but only in those areas with effective bird-friendly management: a high water table, so birds can dig for worms in the soft soil and the vegetation becomes more structured, greater plant variety with enough large insects for the chicks, sufficient cover, and only mown late in June, so eggs and chicks are not killed by the mowing machines. Only then will there be sufficient godwits produced to compensate for the birds that die.
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