Protected areas as biodiversity benchmarks allow a separation of the direct effects of human impact on biodiversity loss from those of other environmental changes. We illustrate the use of ecological baselines with a case from the Serengeti ecosystem, Tanzania. We document a substantial but previously unnoted loss of bird diversity in agriculture detected by reference to the immediately adjacent native vegetation in Serengeti. The abundance of species found in agriculture was only 28% of that for the same species in native savannah. Insectivorous species feeding in the grass layer or in trees were the most reduced. Some 50% of both insectivorous and granivorous species were not recorded in agriculture, with ground–feeding and tree species most affected. Grass–layer insect abundance and diversity was much reduced in agriculture, consistent with the loss of insectivorous birds. These results indicate that many species of birds will become confined to protected areas over time. We need to determine whether existing protected areas are sufficiently large to maintain viable populations of insectivorous birds likely to become confined to them. This study highlights the essential nature of baseline areas for assessing causes of change in human–dominated systems and for developing innovative strategies to restore biodiversity.