Birds at sunset

France for birdwatchers

A short guide to bird life in France - the connoisseur's guide to France
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A short guide to bird life in France

On this page ►  Seabirds and waterfowl
Birds of prey
Other notable birds Bird sanctuaries

HoopoesHoopoes in the spring (Massif Central)  
     Compared to most parts of the UK, France is very rich in bird life. The main national French birdwatchers association, the Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux, or French society for the protection of birds, generally known as the LPO, has been actively campaigning to protect the country's rich birdlife for over 100 years. Founded in 1912, it is one of the country's best known naturalists' associations. (Website in French)
   There are estimated to be 460 varieties of birds in metropolitan France, which is less than the UK; but in terms of absolute numbers of birds, France is surely well ahead of the UK. Human population density in France is half that of the UK, and a quarter of that of England, leaving plenty of wide open spaces and natural environment favourable to bird life. There does not appear to be any estimate on the total average bird population in France today, but it is probably well over the  166 million estimated as the bird population of the the UK (State of the UK's birds report, 2012).
Reports suggest that bird populations have continued to decline in many regions of France (as in most parts of the world) since the start of the 21st century, notably in Mediterranean areas and the agricultural regions of the southwest; but in the sparsely populated uplands of the Massif Central, bird populations are generally on the increase. (Ministry of Ecology statistics 2009 - in French)


With its rugged cliffs and extensive coastline, Brittany is the region of France that is most interesting in terms of seabirds. But the Atlantic coast of France between the Loire and the Garonne, with its salt marshes, its fishing industries, its oysterbeds and its wetlands, is generally a rich area for sea and coastal birds. The coasts of Normandy and Picardy are also home to large numbers of seabirds, notably on the Cotentin Peninsula and the Baie de Somme.

Waders and waterfowl

The Baie de Somme is one of the significant wetland areas of France, attracting large numbers of sedentary and migrating waders and waterfowl. France has several other major wetland areas with interesting birdlife, most notably the Camargue and the Lac de Grandlieu reserve south of Nantes - but also inland wetlands or lake areas such as the Brenne, the Bresse and the Lac du Der in Champagne.
   Two species of waterbird in particular have seen a dramatic increase in numbers in the last thirty years, grey herons and cormorants. Once fairly rare, both are now ubiquitous on France's rivers and lakes, to the point where they are in some cases threatening local ecosystems.

Birds of prey

Short toed eagle - Circa�te Jean le BlancShort-toed eagle in the Massif Central  
Most of rural France, particularly the hilly areas, is rich in birds of prey, notably buzzards (buses) and kites (milans). Generally speaking France's sparsely-inhabited upland areas are home to many more raptors, including several different types of eagle.
Among the most spectacular birds to see in France are the massive griffon vultures that have been reintroduced in the Alps and southern Massif Central (Tarn gorge area). There are now close to 1000 of these huge birds of prey in central southern France, and they are starting to migrate north into the Auvergne. See below for best bird-watching areas in France.
  Lammergeiers, (gypaète barbu) another type of vulture, can be seen in some parts of the Pyrenees, and are being reintroduced into the Alps and in the southern Massif Central. Their numbers are low, but increasing.
  France is home to 40% of the short-toed eagles (circaète Jean le Blanc) of Western Europe, with the largest populations in the Massif Central.
  Other raptors increasingly common in France are hen harriers, Montagu's harriers, marsh harriers, most types of European falcon, buzzards and honey buzzards, red kites and black kites and eagle owls - among others.
   With its rocky terrain, extensive woodlands, moors, sparse human population and medium altitude (500 - 1500 metres), the Massif Central (Auvergne, Limousin, Lozère, Aveyron)  is the richest part of France for observing birds of prey. 

Other notable birds in France

Eagle owlPink flamingoes in the Camargue  
Two birds have become emblematic of areas of France; pink flamingoes (flamants roses) in the Camargue, and storks (cigognes) in Alsace. Some fifty thousand pink flamingoes live in the Camargue wetlands at the mouth of the Rhone; while most migrate to warmer climates in winter, some 10,000 are now sedentary. In Alsace, the population of the region's emblematic bird, the stork, had fallen to just 9 couples in 1974. Since then they have been successfully reintroduced, and the region is now home to over 600 nesting couples - most of whom migrate south in winter.
    Capercaillies (le grand téras) can be seen in several massifs in France, notably the Pyrenees, the Cévennes and the Jura. But France is also home to many other types of birds, and depending on the location, bird watchers may well catch a glimpse of hoopoes, shrikes, different varieties of woodpecker, egrets, plus a good variety of finches, buntings and many other smaller birds.

Nine major bird sanctuaries and areas

La diagonale du vide - FranceBest bird-watching areas in France (pale) and major bird sanctuaries or sites (pink)
The following areas (listed north to south) are of particular interest to bird-lovers:
  • the Baie de Somme wetlands at the mouth of the Somme, in Picardy
  • the Lac du Der in Champagne, eastern France, (migrating birds, in particular cranes),
  • Lac de Grandlieu nature reserve, south of Nantes (Pays de la Loire). Waterfowl, migrants. The second greatest bird area in France after the Camargue, in terms of numbers of species.
  • the Brenne regional park in the Centre region, southeast of Tours
  • the Dombes wildlife reserve and centre in the Ain, north of Lyon, (waders and water birds),
  • the Haut Allier area in the Haute Loire department, south of Clermont-Ferrand in the Auvergne (raptors, eagles and many smaller birds), 
  • the Tarn Gorge in the Aveyron / Lozere area of the southern Massif Central (raptors, vultures), 
  • the Teich bird reserve near Arcachon, southwest of Bordeaux (Aquitaine), (ducks and geese), 
  • The Camargue wetlands on the Mediterranean coast, with their ornithological reserve (flamingoes, waders, migrating birds)

Camargue wetlandsRiding across the Camargue wetlands  

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Photo above. Rooks at sunset.
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While many bird populations have declined in recent years in France, other species have seen their numbers rise, thanks to  increased protection, increasing areas of uncultivated scrubland and woodland, less use of pesticides in many areas, programmes of reintroduction, and a falling number of hunters.
Eagle owl

Eagle owls (in French, grands ducs)  are rare, but their numbers are increasing

Serin - member of the finch family
The bright yellow Serin, quite common in southern France

Stork nesting in Alsace
Nesting stork, Alsace.

White throated dipper
Sandpiper on the river Allier

Accommodation in France

Gites in Auvergne & the Massif Central

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