Where Have All the Small Birds Gone?

Sparrow fledgling
Sparrow fledgling

Yesterday, we stopped by our retired farmer neighbour’s place for a chat. We remarked that it would be only a matter of weeks before the cuckoo, the first of the migratory birds, arrives. We love hearing that piping sound, which is a harbinger of spring even if the weather is still dire. But we all observed that there appear to be fewer seasonal birds in recent years.

When we saw our house for the first time in April 1997, the sound of birdsong was incredible. As we got out of the car, a cuckoo was calling insistently in the woods close by. Our first spring the following year was marked by a riot of trilling and piping, among which the sliding song of nightingales and the call of cuckoos stood out. Having come from urban England, this was a revelation.

Noticeable decline

Over the years, though, the numbers of swallows, nightingales and cuckoos has fallen noticeably. It’s difficult to say if the indigenous birds have declined in the same way in our area and I can’t find statistics about this. The numbers of blackbirds, sparrows, blue tits, great tits, woodpeckers, etc. seem to be just as great, judging by the noise of the dawn chorus.

But we have noticed that fewer small birds seem to nest in the walls of our house than previously. It has always been a delight to us that our house is not only a residence for humans but also an apartment block for birds. We have even christened one nesting hole the des. res., since it has its own balcony.

The sparrows' 'Des Res' with its own balcony
The sparrows’ ‘Des Res’ with its own balcony

Generally, the decline in the bird population is presumed to be due to factors such as the use of pesticides and the reduction of natural habitats like hedgerows and woodland. Around here, however, it’s mostly pasture with a small amount of arable land and, if anything, the woodland has increased. So it’s a mystery, unless there’s a cumulative effect over the years: the amount of arable land here was greater at one time.

Let’s hope the migratory birds return in force this year. Since it’s been a mild winter, the bird population generally should have benefited. Which brings me to the weather for February. I would like to draw a veil over it, but the SF won’t let me.

Weather in February

A reminder of our subjective weather assessment: we assign each day a plus if it’s fine, a minus if it’s bad and a zero if it’s indifferent or we can’t decide. In February, there were:

Pluses – 6
Zeros – 14
Minuses – 9

We were probably being a bit generous. Only one February in 18 years has been worse than this, and the trend is downwards (see the chart below). It wasn’t cold – au contraire – but, mon Dieu, was it wet and grey. We have been known to wear shorts in February; not this year.

Proportion of plus days over 18 years
Proportion of plus days over 18 years


And here’s the proof. In February, we recorded 114 mm of rain; we would normally expect 61.8 mm. It rained on 15 days, half the month; normally you get rain on 10. So far this year, we have had 255 mm of rain, around 62.5% higher than the average of 157 mm. Okay, we needed it: the autumn was desperately dry. I just wish it didn’t come all at once.

Rainfall 2016 to date
Rainfall 2016 to date

French friends like to joke that it’s just like English weather, so we ought to be in our element. Actually, where we lived in England, it didn’t rain as much as it does here. The difference is that when it rains here, it does it with a vengeance.

Frost nights

In view of all that rain, we had few frost nights, only eight, so the total for the winter adds up to 26.

Let’s see what rustic wisdom has to say about February and March:

Février remplit les fossés, mars les vide. February fills the ditches; March empties them.

The first part is certainly true this year. But March has started even wetter: to date, we’ve already had 52 mm. At least the evenings are drawing out now, the buds are ready to burst and it’s going in the right direction. Vivement le printemps!

You might also like:

Cuckoos, Birdsong and SW France Weather March 2015
Nightingales in Southwest France
The First Cuckoo

Copyright © 2016 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved



  1. I heard a Blackbird singing its heart out yesterday; but it was a lovely day. We occasionally have a Hoopoe visit in the summer, but not last year. I do hope he returns.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The blackbirds are very much in evidence here as well. They seem to be undeterred by the weather. I have seen one hanging on to the top of a tree in a howling gale while still singing fit to bust. Two years ago we had a hoopoe nest somewhere near the house and saw the parents feeding the fledglings on the lawn. I managed to get some shots of them. They didn’t return last year, though, and we only got fleeting glimpses of one on the road.


  2. So sad that the bird population is declining. It is a widespread problem but I was heartened last year that friends of mine in Cantal were joining in a BirdWatch project – I have known about the English version for years (took part many times with eager daughters over the years before they themselves flew my nest) but I hadn’t realised it happened in France. I hope many of your migrators make the journey this year and nestle well with the indiginous birdies 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I meant to mention the BirdWatch project, but forgot, so thank you for reminding me of it. We hope the numbers of migratory birds will rise this year, but this depends on the conditions in their countries of origin.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s one of those awful situations where one is entirely helpless … I was talking to a gaggle of geese (did you know that in flight they become a Skein?) this morning and urging them to take care on their flight North. And Geese have few perils to overcome – the little birds, bravely flying all those miles have dreadful things put in their paths. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for a good migration this year.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. A lovely article as usual Vanessa. I’ve manipulated our little urban garden’s bird population. There is a bird house, and I put out kitchen scraps, fatty bones, cooked rice, maize husks, and sunflower seed. We had four Koi breeding ponds at one stage, now there is only one, bringing the masked weavers, with their beautifully engineered pear shaped houses. Another plus for us, but not for the environment is that on google earth you can see our house clearly, it is the green square amongst the brown. Most of the green comes from a giant acacia thorn tree I planted about the time you moved to La Lune ! There are so many nests in this tree, perhaps the thorns make it easier for bird engineers. We have weavers, doves of two kinds, sparrows of two kinds, wagtails, white eyes, sugar birds, pied shrikes, and red collared sunbirds coming for the nectar in the yellow pom pom blossoms, and once even a rare finch with a red collar and polka dotted breast, that is normally not seen outside Namibia. This is all very lovely, and to be woken by the dawn chorus is a delight, but… Where my mum lives 7 kilometres away, she has often remarked that the birds are disappearing. Her garden is a jungle and yet there is no dawn chorus ! none but a forlorn lonely cheeping from teh indomitable European sparrow. These birds are not migratory… they are just small insect eaters, and she blames the school nearby with its huge sports fields, and the large park nearby, all of which are sprayed with weedkillers, fertilizer and insecticides. Our groundwater has become so polluted with weedkillers that you cannot use it on the garden. Why the small birds in rural France are disappearing, in an area that is depopulated and where agriculture is receding, may depend on where they have come from, and the hard journey. I’ve seen a movie about how they are trapped in big nets for food in Italy. It may depend on their diet. Perhaps some GM grains that they are not able to digest, and hence starvation, perhaps changing crops and more expensive sensitive vegetable varieties which need more spraying, are poisoning their insect diet. There is a big difference between the level of spraying on different vegetables. Perhaps some of the chemicals they consume interfere with the accumulation of fat reserves for surviving the winter by tweaking their hormones. I will do some more research on this, apparently global, problem and let you know if I find any other naturalists who are worried, and what the theories are.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. We do our best to feed the birds, although we haven’t done too much of that this winter, since it’s been mild and the insect population has been higher than normal. Hopefully, this means the bird population might have benefited – and won’t have had to combat very cold conditions, which we can get here. I’ll be interested to see any information you turn up.


    • That could be one reason. Someone else suggested increasing desertification making it difficult for them to get here. Whatever it is, there are certainly fewer of them here than there were.


  4. i read recently that the black redstart is on a red list in the uk with less than 100 breeding pairs. in our garden the black redstart is the herald of summer days. he or she? pipes from the top of the roof most of the day. some years they have nested beneath our shower tray, yes, really. the waste pipe under the tray goes out through the stone wall and the builders who did our restoration work didn’t fill it in so the space is our ‘des res’! 🙂 there were mornings when we could hear the twittering through the porcelain as food was delivered by the parents. if we were sitting outside the parent birds would go into elaborate manoevres to convince us there was no nest in the vicinity! happily the nest was so high the cats never got the fledglings unlike the baby tits that we desprately tried to save when tits nested in both sides of our workshop and the fledglings fell to certain death below. another herald is the golden oriele. i’ve never seen it but every summer it calls from the woods beyond the garden while the nightingale prefers the railway embankment. oh, how i long for those sounds. as you recount, this spring has been miserable so far!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • We normally have plenty of black redstarts here. They are terrible builders and always try to build a nest on a ledge in our bolet (covered balcony). Unfortunately, it always falls down. They have also tried the top of the bookcase (2 metres high) in the pigeonnier that leads off our bedroom. We have a lot of golden orioles that come back every year. Sometimes we see them, but they generally keep to the treetops, where they whistle and chirrup in their rather electronic way. I do hope they keep coming back. For us, this is one of the pleasures of living here.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Yes, I’ve noticed this also in Tuscany. Unfortunately there is far too much use of pesticides and I’d love to see a re-planting of trees initiative here in SW France; the farmers are far too keen to chop and not re-plant. Swallows continue to have a tough time crossing the Sahara owing to increasing desertification there and then the wars; they must have an effect on migratory birds.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Where we live, I think there’s a process of afforestation going on, since some agricultural land has been abandoned. Woodland is cut down for firewood, but also replaced – sometimes by inertia rather than active replacement. Rural depopulation is no doubt the cause. But it does depend on where you are. I’m sure life has got more difficult for migratory birds


  6. At about 10:00 this morning, during my one hour qigong play, in a small public garden nearby, between two showers, was a bird show, with tens of them playing around ! I am sure that they will come back to your place !

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