Birds, Biodiversity and Farming in Provence
The European roller (Coracias garrulous) is the only member of the roller family of birds to breed in Europe and is the focus of a new Earthwatch field research project in the Provence region of France.
The bird's striking physical appearance, a mix of turquoise and black plumage with a warm brown patch on the back, is mirrored by the impressive flight acrobatics performed during its courtship flights (hence the derivation of the name ‘roller'). Although the European roller's overall range extends into the Middle East and parts of Central Asia, more than half of its global breeding range is found in Europe, where a relatively small European breeding population has declined by 30 per cent since 1970. This decline is the result of habitat degradation from intense farming practices such as over-cropping, over-grazing, and pesticide use that reduces the availability of food. As a consequence, the European roller is classified by the IUCN Red List as near threatened.
The bird depends on healthy forests, riverbanks, and field hedgerows for its breeding nests, and it feeds on large insects. These are all characteristic elements of a diverse and healthy landscape that suggest the European roller has high potential to act as an indicator species of healthy farmlands (a species whose need for specific types of habitat and prey allows its status to be a measure of the environmental health of a certain landscape). Its magnificent physical appearance lends it a widespread appeal among local people, as well as visitors to the region, making it an ideal flagship species for the region (a species chosen to represent an environmental cause due to its unique appeal which best incites public support for its conservation).
France plays a key role in the protection of the European roller with an increasing population of 1,000 birds in the southern part of the country. A new Earthwatch project led by Muriel Gervais will study the potential of the European roller to act both as an indicator species and flagship species for high nature value farmland in the Mediterranean region. As an indicator species, the European Roller can be used to understand and track the magnitude and causes of biodiversity change in the Provence region; as a flagship species it can be used to involve new stakeholders in conservation and thus achieve long-term conservation results. The project will be carried out in partnership with A Rocha, an international Christian nature conservation organisation that has carried out previous studies of rollers in Provence.
On the expedition
Earthwatch volunteers will have the chance to take part in the research while experiencing Provence at its best in May, June and July. Their tasks will range from looking for breeding sites by spotting rollers, assessing prey availability by catching and identifying insects, and stimulating local interest by preparing educational materials. Determining the relationship between European roller populations and land use practices based on information relating to breeding population behaviour can be used to confirm whether the European roller is a viable indicator species for healthy farmlands.
The information collected will be used to develop a model that combines scientific research, education, ecological restoration, and community participation to identify solutions that can be used by local farmers to conserve this charismatic species. The aim is that the insights gleaned from working alongside local farmers will draw attention to wider issues surrounding the impacts of farming on biodiversity and landscape management in the Mediterranean region.
If you want to join the Birds, Biodiversity and Farming in Provence expedition, take advantage of our Winter Special Offer.