Distribution of neotropical migratory bird species across an urbanizing landscape
Urbanization leads to long-term modification of landscapes by habitat loss, fragmentation, and the creation of new habitats. Species’ distributions respond to these modifications of habitat availability, but the combination of parameters and scale at which habitat alteration most strongly influences species distributions is poorly understood. We evaluated responses of neotropical migratory birds, a group known to be sensitive to habitat modification, across a gradient of urbanization in the southeastern United States. Thirteen Breeding Bird Survey routes, each with 40 to 50 point counts, were used to quantify species richness across the gradient of urbanization extending from downtown areas of Columbus, GA to natural woodlands. Buffers of 100, 200, and 1000 m radii were constructed from remote images around each counting point to quantify land-use with the goal of evaluating land-use parameters and scales that best described spatial variation in migrant bird species richness. Within each buffer we quantified the proportion of each cover type and within the 1000 m buffers we included several configuration parameters. We used an information-theoretic approach to separate models whose predictor variables were land-use parameters. Because measures of landscape configuration were all correlated with urban cover, these variables were entered separately. In 2002, the best model was composed of large-scale urban cover (negative effect) and mid-scale mixed hardwoods (negative and positive effect) and transitional cover (negative and positive effect) as well as the interaction between the latter two terms (positive effect). In 2003, the best model was composed of weighted edge density (negative effect), mid-scale mixed hardwood cover (negative and positive effect) and large scale transitional cover (positive effect) and the interaction between mixed hardwoods and weighted edge density (positive effect). Our results indicate that large scale habitat attributes influence the local species richness of migrant birds more than smaller scales. These results also indicate that urbanization, through increased urban cover or increasing edge contrast, has strong negative effects on species richness. Our findings support the contention that the conservation value of small woodlots in urban settings may be minimal and suggest that conservation of migratory birds will be best achieved by giving higher priority to sites where urban cover is still low and by preserving large areas of “green space” in urbanizing landscapes. The negative influence of urban cover combined with relatively minor effects of non-urban habitats on distributions of neotropical migratory birds indicates that continued urbanization of landscapes is a serious concern for conservation efforts.