Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

Scalar effects of vegetation on bird communities in an urbanizing desert ecosystem


We analyzed how urbanization in a desert ecosystem affects avian distribution at two distinct scales. At the regional level, we compared how urban land use configuration, relative to its surrounding agricultural fields and desert, affected the distribution of native and exotic species. While exotic species are isolated to the city; native species actively utilize the entire region, even occurring at higher densities in the city than in some areas of the desert. We also used this approach to compare four foraging guilds of birds: granivores, nectivores, omnivores, and insectivores. Granivores occurred mostly in agricultural fields and in the surrounding urban areas. Nectivores and omnivores occurred throughout the region, but mostly within the city. In contrast, insectivores occurred mostly in the desert. At a more local scale, we tested how the abundance of native species, exotics species and the foraging guilds of birds responded to vegetation cover measured at varying spatial scales (0.1 km–10 km). Bird guilds responded to vegetation at different scales, depending on the association between their life history and vegetation. Granivore abundance was most strongly correlated with vegetation at relatively fine spatial scales, followed by nectivores and omnivores at larger scales; whereas insectivores did not correlate with vegetation at any scale. Exotic and native species showed strikingly opposite trends in their association with vegetation. Native species showed the best fit at the smallest spatial scale and became insignificant at larger scales, whereas the highest correlation of exotic species with vegetation was at moderate to larger scales. While guild relationship with vegetation appears straightforward, the differences between exotic and native birds may indicate a complex response to environmental factors. Possibly, native species are more sensitive than exotics on vegetation abundance for food and shelter, which in the desert is highly variable depending on water availability. In contrast, exotic species, tightly connected to the urban infrastructure, likely respond to the enhanced and homogenized resource abundance characteristic of desert cities. Our results suggest that relationships between birds and vegetation may bear important information that can be revealed when considering smaller class levels than total species diversity.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5
Fig. 6


  1. Anderies JM, Katti M, Shochat E (2007) Living in the city: population dynamics when resources are predictable and predation risk is low. J Theor Biol 247:36–49

  2. Blair RB (1996) Land-use and avian species diversity along an urban gradient. Ecol Appl 6:506–519

  3. Chace JF, Walsh JJ (2006) Urban effects on native avifauna: a review. Landsc Urban Plan 74:46–69

  4. DeGraaf RM, Wentworth JM (1981) Urban bird communities and habitats in New England. In: (pp 396–412) North American Wildlife Conference, Washington, DC.

  5. Dunn OJ (1964) Multiple contrasts using rank sums. Technometrics 6:241–252

  6. Dwyer JF, Nowak DJ, Noble MH, Sisinni SM (2000) Connecting people with ecosystems in the 21st century: an assessment of our nation’s urban forests. General Technical Report Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-490, US Dept. of Agriculture, Portland

  7. Faeth SH, Warren PS, Shochat E, Marussich WA (2005) Trophic dynamics in urban communities. Bioscience 55:399–407

  8. Grove JM, Troy AR, O’Neil-Dunne JPM, Burch WR Jr, Cadenasso ML, Pickett STA (2006) Characterization of households and its implications for the vegetation of urban ecosystems. Ecosystems 9:578–597

  9. Hobbs RJ, Arico S, Aronson J, Baron JS, Bridgewater P, Cramer VA, Epstein PR, Ewel JJ, Klink CA, Lugo AE, Norton D, Ojima D, Richardson DM, Sanderson EW, Valladares F, Vila M, Zamora R, Zobel M (2006) Novel ecosystems: theoretical and management aspects of the new ecological world order. Glob Ecol Biogeogr 15:1–7

  10. Hostetler M (2001) The importance of multi-scale analyses in avian habitat selection studies in urban environments. In: Marzluf MJ, Bowman R, Donelly R (eds) Avian ecology and conservation in an urbanizing world. Kluwer Academic, New York, pp 139–154

  11. Hostetler M, Holling CS (2001) Detecting the scales at which birds respond to structure in urban landscapes. Urban Ecosyst 4:25–54

  12. Hostetler M, Knowles-Yanez K (2003) Land use, scale, and bird distributions in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Landsc Urban Plan 62:447–502

  13. Hutto RL (1985) Habitat selection by nonbreeding landbirds. In: Cody ML (ed) Habitat selection in birds. Academic, New York, pp 455–476

  14. Johnson DH (1980) The comparison of usage and availability measurements for evaluating resource preference. Ecology 61:65–71

  15. Journel AG (1983) Nonparametric estimation of spatial distributions. J Int Assoc Math Geol 15:445–468

  16. Kotliar NB, Wiens JA (1990) Multiple scales of patchiness and patch structure: a hierarchical framework for the study for heterogeneity. Oikos 59:253–260

  17. Kruskal WH, Wallis WA (1952) Use of ranks in one-criterion analysis of variance. J Am Stat Assoc 47:583–621

  18. Levin SA (1992) The problem of pattern and scale in ecology. Ecology 73:1943–1967

  19. McIntyre NE, Rango J, Fagan WF, Faeth SH (2001) Ground arthropod community structure in a heterogeneous urban environment. Landsc Urban Plan 52:257–274

  20. Mills GS, Dunning JB Jr, Bates JM (1989) Effects of urbanization on breeding bird community structure in southwestern desert habitats. Condor 91:416–428

  21. Shochat E (2004) Credit or debit? Resource input changes population dynamics of city-slicker birds. Oikos 106:622–626

  22. Shochat E, Lerman S, Katti M, Lewis DB (2004a) Linking optimal foraging behavior to bird community structure in an urban-desert landscape: field experiments with artificial food patches. Am Nat 164:232–243

  23. Shochat E, Stefanov WL, Whitehouse MEA, Faeth SH (2004b) Urbanization and spider diversity: influences of human modification of habitat structure and productivity. Ecol Appl 14:268–280

  24. Walker JS, Briggs JM (2007) An object-oriented approach to urban forest mapping with high-resolution, true-color aerial photography. Photogramm Eng Remote Sensing 73(5):577–583

  25. Walker JS, Wentz EA, Warren P, Katti M (2008) Birds of a feather: interpolations of urban bird counts. Comput Environ Urban Syst 32:19–28

  26. Walker JS, Briggs JM, Dugan L, Gries C, Grimm NB (2009) Multiscalar patterns and controls of plant diversity in a rapidly urbanizing desert metropolis. Front Ecol Environ 7(9):465–470

  27. Weins JA (1989) The ecology of bird communities. Cambridge University Press, New York

  28. Weins JA, Stenseth NC, Van Home B, Ims RA (1993) Ecological mechanisms and landscape ecology. Oikos 66:369–380

Download references

Author information

Correspondence to Jason S. Walker.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Walker, J.S., Shochat, E. Scalar effects of vegetation on bird communities in an urbanizing desert ecosystem. Urban Ecosyst 13, 155–167 (2010).

Download citation


  • Bird communities
  • Scalar effects
  • Urban ecology
  • Canopy cover