Most churches are focused on heaven, but in Poland, they seem to be providing a more earthly benefit: sanctuary for dozens of species of birds.
That’s what biologists found when they surveyed the properties of 101 churches and an equal number of farmsteads in villages in southern Poland. Previous research had found that farms in Eastern Europe support large numbers of different kinds of birds, providing important sanctuaries for the species in areas where their more natural habitat was lost. But the new study, which examined the features of in-use churches and farms, as well as their surrounding grounds, shows churches had 1.6 times more species on average than farms, and about twice as many birds overall, the researchers report this month in Biological Conservation.
Tall, old churches with separate bell towers hosted the highest bird diversity. That may be because they mimic the isolated, rocky hills that abound in the Polish landscape, the authors say. Another reason: Birds have had centuries to incorporate the oldest of the churches into their habitats. Finally, there were fewer cats—which are notorious bird predators—at most of the surveyed churches.
The numbers mean churches may be important for maintaining bird diversity in Poland, which is home to more than 10,000 churches, the authors say. They even suggest ecominded pastors could boost conservation efforts by preserving structures attractive to birds, including building nooks and bell towers.