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Where nothing stands still: quantifying nomadism in Australian arid-zone birds

Abstract

Context

Nomadism is a movement strategy in response to non-seasonal environmental variability. Knowledge of nomadic species movements is poor but is necessary to understand life histories and develop appropriate conservation strategies.

Objectives

We provide a first quantification of nomadism among Australia’s arid bird community, which is presumed to be highly nomadic, by measuring variation in species’ occurrence and abundance among years to determine whether there are clear nomadic and non-nomadic strategists.

Methods

We surveyed birds annually from 2012 to 2016. We measured how many years each species was present at a site and estimated inter-annual variability in species abundance, using both measures to infer species movement patterns. We used results to inform existing movement classifications.

Results

Most arid species showed low site persistence, with species detected at the same site, on average, 1.8 out of the five survey years. Movement varied along a continuum rather than grouping into distinct nomadic and non-nomadic groups. Species classified as nomadic showed higher variation in abundance and lower site persistence than species classified as resident. Our method of quantifying nomadism closely replicated existing expert-derived movement classifications of arid zone bird species.

Conclusions

Rather than a fixed attribute, movements of many species in our study can be heavily environment-dependent, and individuals of a single species can display a continuum of movements in different times and places. This complicates the conservation of species, but the growing recognition of the complexity of species movements offers opportunities for a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between species and environment.

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Fig. 1

taken from three representative weather stations (indicated by triangles, clockwise from far left: Oodnadatta airport; Birdsville Police Station; Marree) from the 1961–1990 reference period used by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (www.bom.gov.au/climate/data). Vertical lines indicate where tracks begin or end. c Orientation of the eight 400 m line transects at each census stop relative to the road. *Intra-annual rainfall variability (coefficient of variation- CV) was calculated for each year (1961–1990) as the standard deviation of total monthly rainfall divided by the average total monthly rainfall, which was then averaged across the three weather stations. Inter-annual rainfall CV was calculated as the standard deviation of total annual rainfall across years divided by the average total annual rainfall across years

Fig. 2

adapted from Garnett et al. 2015 (see Table S2) and species codes can be found in Table 1

Fig. 3

adapted from Garnett et al. 2015 (see Table S2) and species codes can be found in Table 1

Fig. 4

adapted from Garnett et al. 2015 (see Table S2). Species present at less than 10% of sites were excluded. Species codes can be found in Table 1

Data availability

Raw species abundance data collected for this study are provided as a supporting file in this published article [Gibson_etal_surveydata.xlsx].

Code availability

Code for species density models can be made available if requested upon acceptance by the journal.

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Acknowledgements

This project arose from a CSIRO Distinguished Visiting Scientist Fellowship to SGW. The research was funded in part by grants to SGW from the Natural Environment Research Council Grant (NE/J01141X/1), the British Ecological Society and the British Ornithologists Union, and a South Australian Birds research grant to MG. MG was supported by a Durham Doctoral Scholarship under the supervision of SGW, PAS and RAF, with assistance from CAR. We are grateful to the many field assistants and co-workers that helped on the project, particularly Jasmine Lee, Rob Clemens and Karen Mustin. We thank landowners and Traditional Owners for access to sites. Matt Holden helped transcribe equations, David Miller and Eric Rexstad provided guidance with density estimation.

Funding

This project arose from a CSIRO Distinguished Visiting Scientist Fellowship to SGW. The research was funded in part by grants to SGW from the Natural Environment Research Council Grant (NE/J01141X/1), the British Ecological Society and the British Ornithologists Union, and a South Australian Birds research grant to MG. MG was supported by a Durham Doctoral Scholarship.

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Authors

Contributions

SGW and RAF initiated the monitoring, and MG, SGW, and RAF conceived the ideas; RAF and MG largely organised the fieldwork logistics. All authors except PAS collected field data, along with numerous field assistants. MG analysed the data, assisted by PAS and all other authors; MG led the writing under the guidance of CAR, RAF, SGW, and PAS.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Michelle R. Gibson.

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Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.

Research permit and ethical approval

Permission to conduct observational activities and collect data on wild bird species was given by the South Australia Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources, No. E26001.

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Not applicable.

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Gibson, M.R., Runge, C.A., Stephens, P.A. et al. Where nothing stands still: quantifying nomadism in Australian arid-zone birds. Landscape Ecol (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10980-021-01343-2

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Keywords

  • Australia
  • Bird
  • Distance sampling
  • Movement ecology
  • Nomadic species
  • Sedentary species