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Why Intensive Farming Is Good for Rainforest Birds

Only if governments take the opportunity to set aside larger swaths of undisturbed forests, of course.
Low-intensity farming in the tropics. (Photo: David Edwards)

Low-intensity farming in the tropics. (Photo: David Edwards)

We'd love to save the rainforest, but we also need to make sure people have the space they need to farm and feed themselves. How to best accomplish these very different goals? Here, there are two camps of thinking: those who believe farmers should be encouraged to lightly cultivate a large land area, with fields that incorporate small strips of wild land alongside crops; and those who would encourage farmers to more intensely cultivate smaller fields, allowing them to set aside larger areas of wild land for the birds, bears, jaguars, and other creatures of the forest.

For several years now, researchers have been trying to figure out which model works best. Now, a new study comes down on the intense-farming side. After modeling the species of birds that would appear around different types of farms in the Choco-Andes region of Ecuador, a team of environmental scientists from the United Kingdom, Norway, and Colombia found that having large sections of contiguous forest was most important to bird diversity. (Birds are considered a good proxy for biodiversity in general, as they tend to live in many different types of habitats, from forest floor to canopy.)

Having large sections of contiguous forest was most important to bird diversity.

"Our results underline the critical importance of halting the conversion of contiguous forests to farmland," the researchers write in a paper published today in the journal Current Biology. Turning forests into farmland means a dramatic loss of bird diversity, even if the farmer tries to tread lightly. And the loss may not be immediately apparent to the untrained eye. Many bird species, including warblers, sparrows, and crows, do fine on farms. What the study scientists sought in their models, however, was a farming scheme to help maintain bird species that differ greatly from one another. That's because, according to the researchers, having more diverse families of birds in an area helps keep the ecosystem stable. The birds need to be varied enough to perform different roles within the ecosystem.

It's not just biodiversity that benefits from large swaths of untouched land. Just this week, Pacific Standard covered a study that found having a few, large national parks in a dense city better protected the natural lands' ability to clean the air and water, store carbon, and perform other functions, compared to having small parks scattered throughout a less densely built city.

It appears that some animals—and other wild land benefits—just need a lot of room to stretch out.

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.