, Volume 19, Issue 8, pp 2247-2262
Date: 04 Apr 2010

Bird foraging height predicts bird species response to woody vegetation change

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Abstract

Accurate a priori predictions of the sensitivity of species to vegetation management depend on an understanding of mechanisms underlying species response. To date information on where birds forage in the vegetation strata has been used to predict bird species response to vegetation change caused by livestock grazing. Profiting from this link between vegetation structural diversity and bird diversity, we test whether this variable, bird foraging height, can be used to predict the impact of a different type of habitat alteration; vegetation encroachment. Increases in vegetation density, called ‘encroachment’ or ‘thickening’, throughout savanna landscapes are considered a serious management issue for pastoral activities and a potential threat to biodiversity. We developed woody-vegetation-change models to predict the effect of vegetation encroachment on bird species through an understanding of where birds forage in intact vegetation communities. We compare model predictions with bird abundance data collected from 60 field sites representing a single woodland vegetation type, but with a gradient of woody vegetation density caused by clearing, thinning and natural climatic perturbation. Our model successfully predicted for the majority (80%) of birds considered, whether a species was likely to increase, decrease or remain unaffected by increases in woody vegetation density. We find that the majority of species respond positively to vegetation encroachment. Our approach avoids problems of post hoc data interpretation and tests a specific mechanism underlying bird species response to habitat alteration, bird foraging height. Simple predictive models such as these will assist land managers make informed decisions about management actions and consequences, particularly in cases where decisions need to be made urgently and preclude the collection and analysis of primary ecological data sets.