The hoopoe is back. This year, scientists watched the species for the first time in a reserve where European bison and wild horses range

2018 - 09 - 25
The hoopoe is back. This year, scientists watched the species for the first time in a reserve where European bison and wild horses range

One of the rarest species of birds in Central Europe has returned to a large herbivore reserve located at the former military training area of Milovice near Prague. This year, scientists first observed the Eurasian hoopoe in grazing areas. “The bird was spotted repeatedly in the local pastures – sometimes even several times per day; during the previous three years, we did not encounter the creature at all in these places,” explained Miloslav Jirku from the Biological Centre of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic.

A group of ornithologists from Slovakia who stayed in the reserve on a field trip was the first to sight the bird. During the summer, it was also repeatedly spotted by other scientists. Meanwhile, experts have been eager to see the bird since 2015 when the large herbivores were released on the reserve located in the former military area, since the bird actually occurred in these places in the past. Its numbers, however, gradually decreased as the landscape became overgrown after the military activities were discontinued.

While hoopoes were observed in recent years in the area surrounding the current large herbivore reserve, the bird paradoxically was not seen until this year in the open areas that form its habitat, since the dense and tall grasslands that covered the area before the arrival of large herbivores prevented it from hunting its prey – large insects. But it seems that hoopoes have now begun discovering short-grass areas created by grazing in recent years.

“In cooperation with ornithologists, we have therefore placed special hoopoe boxes in the reserve. The first was installed in 2016, another came the year after,” said Dalibor Dostal, director of the conservation organization European Wildlife.

The return of the hoopoe into the reserve could be good news in what is otherwise the sad story of this remarkable bird species. Hoopoes are among birds that have seen a decrease in populations or even vanished from numerous parts of Central Europe. The bird’s distribution range has declined by more than one-half in the last thirty years.

One of the causes of the loss is the intense use of chemicals in agriculture, including highly toxic antiparasitic products used to treat domestic animals, since the agents of common use are heavily toxic for beetles and other insects, whose larvae in the faeces of animals are an important component of the hoopoe’s diet. “Excessive use of antiparasitic agents is one of the main causes of the loss of beetles that remove the faeces from pasture lands. But it is these beetles that not only clean the zones, but also fertilise them, as they are also a good source of food for many insects, including hoopoes,” Jirku points out.

As a result, ornithologists welcome the return of large herbivores to the landscape. “The loss of our country’s hoopoes goes hand in hand with the disappearance of grazing livestock from rural areas, as well as the excess amounts of chemicals in the environment. It is not surprising that rare hoopoes are attracted by areas grazed by wild horses, European bison and aurochs, where there is enough food in the faeces of these animals untreated with toxic drugs,” said Brenek Michalek from the Czech branch of BirdLife International.

To this end, hoopoes are not the only bird species benefitting from grazing land by large herbivores. The experience of other reserves where offspring of Milovice wild horses have moved to testifies to this. “In the Josefov Meadows Bird Park, we have observed that faeces of wild horses are very attractive for birds, such as the common snipe – a severely endangered member of the Charadriiformes order; similar to the hoopoe, this creature has a long beak for hunting insects in faeces,” added Michalek.

In addition to the insect larvae in the faeces of large herbivores, hoopoes are also attracted to the Milovice reserve by a variety of other types of food. For example, they hunt crickets, insects which thrive in Milovice thanks to the grazing wild horses, European bison and aurochs produced in a back-breeding programme, since crickets prefer the short-grass areas that the grazing activity has returned to the landscape.

Scientists will continue to monitor the occurrence of the hoopoe in the former military area of Milovice, and lessons learned abroad show that their numbers could increase. “Colleagues from Oranienbaumer Heide, a similar grazing reserve located in Germany, pointed out that at the beginning of their large herbivore grazing projects, no hoopoes nested locally. There are now dozens of breeding pairs of this endangered species at the site,” Jirku notes.

Photo: Luc Viatour / Wikimedia

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