Variation in abundances of common bird species associated with roads

Author(s): Cooke, S.C., Balmford, A., Johnston, A., Newson, S.E. & Donald, P.F.

Published: April 2020   Pages: 12pp

Journal: Journal of Applied Ecology

Digital Identifier No. (DOI): 10.1111/1365-2664.13614

View journal article


1. The global road network, currently over 45 million lane‐km in length, is expected to reach 70 million lane‐km by 2050, while the number of vehicles utilizing it is expected to double. Roads have been shown to affect a range of wildlife, including birds, but most studies have been relatively small scale.

2. We use data from across Great Britain to analyse the relationships between roads and the spatial distributions of bird populations. We model counts of 51 common and widespread species from the U.K. Breeding Bird Survey in relation to road exposure, which we calculated for each count site using the density, distance and traffic volume of all roads within a 5‐km radius. In these models, we incorporate other factors known to affect bird populations, including agricultural intensity, human population, habitat and climate. Importantly, we also account for differences in detectability of birds near to roads.

3. The abundances of 30 species were strongly significantly related to exposure to either major or minor roads. Species were generally in higher abundances with increasing exposure to minor roads (20/28). In contrast, most significant associations between major road exposure and bird abundance were negative (7/8).

4. For species with significant effects of road exposure, we assessed how estimated abundance changed across the central 50% of road exposure experienced for each species. The mean decrease in abundance was 19% and the mean increase was 47%. These changes in bird abundance were up to half as large as those associated with increasing agricultural intensity, a factor often cited as a major cause of bird population changes.

5. Synthesis and applications. Our research shows many species to vary in abundance with increasing road exposure. This suggests that roads may modify bird populations on a national scale and that their potential as drivers of biodiversity change should not be overlooked. Our work highlights the need for appropriate mitigation of roads, particularly in areas important for avian biodiversity. This could include efforts to reduce impacts of road noise and/or collisions, such as reduced speed limits or quieter road surfaces in sensitive areas.


The authors thank Dario Massimino, Rhys E. Green, Simon Gillings, Andrea Manica, William J. Sutherland and Lucy E. Haskell for their assistance with this study, and Tom Finch for providing the agricultural yield estimates. We also thank all the volunteer BTO fieldworkers. The BBS is jointly funded by the BTO, JNCC and RSPB, Stuart Newson is supported by the BTO's Young Scientists' Programme and Sophia C. Cooke is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council.
Staff Author(s)
Publication Topics

Related content