Ecological modelling to assess the risks that pesticides pose to woodpigeon populations

Katarzyna Kulakowska, PhD project, University of Reading, UK

Supervisors: Prof Richard Sibly, Dr Pernille Thorbek

The woodpigeon is a common bird in Northern European agricultural landscapes and has been intensively studied by scientists, with the result that its behavioural ecology is well documented. It is a useful indicator species of the effects of pesticides because of its vulnerability to agricultural practice. These features make it a key species for regulatory risk assessments but at present there is no way to fully assess the risks that pesticides pose to woodpigeon populations. Ecological modelling offers a novel approach to this risk assessment problem. Here we ask: 1) what is the minimum level of model complexity needed to get a realistic simulation of woodpigeon population dynamics? 2) is realism affected by detailed landscape structure?

I have developed an Individual Based Model (IBM) of the woodpigeon in Java using the large existing literature on the species and datasets, mainly from the long-term study on woodpigeons in Carlton, Cambridgeshire (1960-2004). The IBM has been extensively tested to investigate the effects of complexity of the way in which individuals are modelled and of the landscape in which they live. We focus primarily on investigation of foraging mechanism as it strongly influences the potential exposure of the population to pesticides.

In the next step the model may be used to examine the potential effects of pesticides on a population scale.It is possible to investigate different effects on breeding activities, like postponing the brood, abandonment, increased egg or nestling mortality and compare the results on population scale with not affected population. In this way we will identify the disturbances to which of these processess cause the visual and long-term repercussions for the population.

The project is run in cooperation with other CREAM PhD student at Reading modelling the behaviour of skylarks, Tomasz Kulakowski. Although species differ markedly in their diet, breeding and migratory strategies, they occur in the same landscapes, and are described by similar general ecological principles. Thus we have developed a common modelling environment SkyPig in which we have implemented the common features of both models. The analysis of results is also being implemented for both species together. This approach makes the models easily accesible for wider user community.

The model is available online:

Runnable model version (please rename as skypig.jar before running):

Sample configuration file:

Sample initialisation file:

Source code:

TRACE documentation with the description of the model development, design, parameters and analysis; a short user manual is also attached here:

Javadoc documentation:

The project is cosupervised by Dr P. Thorbek of Syngenta. Dr M. Reed, Dr C.J.Topping and Dr J. D. Stark, international experts in this type of modelling, are providing additional input. Outputs will be scientific papers on the model and its performance.  These will make recommendations for the level of detail that is needed in models, and for the evaluation of the effects of pesticides on populations.

Reading University is ranked as one of the UK’s 10 most research-intensive universities and as one of the top 200 universities in the world.  Established in 1926 it is particularly known for its work in the sciences relating to Agriculture.  The School of Biological Sciences is one of the larger such Schools in the UK and offers the benefits of a modern multi-disciplinary approach to projects supported by considerable recent investment in the field.  The school has particular strengths in quantitative biology.

Supervisor: Richard Sibly (UREAD)
Pernille Thorbek (Syngenta)
Associated partners:
CRD; RifCon