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How many birds are there in a city of half a million people?

Fuller, R.A., Tratalos, J. & Gaston, K.J. 2009. How many birds are there in a city of half a million people? Diversity & Distributions, 15, 328–337.

Aim  Urban environments are often characterized as supporting a few abundant, generalist species best adapted to living alongside humans, and as such, cities are seen as agents of biotic homogenization. However, there are surprisingly few descriptions of biological populations found in cities. Here, we provide the first complete citywide population estimates of birds for any UK city, and examine the conservation status of the assemblage in comparison with the country’s avifauna at large.

Location  Sheffield city, central UK

Methods  We surveyed birds in every 500 m × 500 m square across the 160 km2 of the city. Using a Distance sampling protocol, we estimated bird population sizes for the city and compared these with the size of the human population. We also compared the conservation status of the city’s avian population with that of birds across the UK as a whole.

Results  Aggregation of population estimates for the 77 species observed during the surveys produced a total estimate of 602,995 (95% confidence interval (CI): 404,565–942,573) breeding birds, equating to 1.18 birds per person. The size of the non-breeding population was similar at 578,603 (464,396–728,574) individuals, or 1.13 birds per person. Surveys revealed only three non-native species, but relatively few species of national conservation concern. However, some species of conservation concern achieved very high population densities within the city, and the overall density of birds was more than six times that of the nation at large.

Main conclusions  If declines in some species are to be arrested or reversed, conservation effort will need to focus much more strongly on understanding and managing urban populations, because these might buffer some species against wholesale regional population depletion, particularly where intensive agriculture in the surrounding hinterland has led to declines in bird populations at large. Such a focus will require a significant increase in the priority and resources devoted to conservation activities in urban areas.

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