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Fragmention by Agriculture Influences Reproductive Success of Birds in a Shrubsteppe Landscape

Category: Wildlife Research and Management - Wildlife Research

Date Published:  2007

Number of Pages: 14

Author(s): W. Matthew Vander Haegen

Ecological Applications, 17(3), 2007, pp. 934–947


Shrubsteppe communities are among the most imperiled ecosystems in North America as a result of conversion to agriculture and other anthropogenic changes. In the Intermountain West of the United States, these communities support a unique avifauna, including several species that are declining and numerous others that are of conservation concern. Extensive research in the eastern and central United States and in Scandinavia suggests that fragmentation of formerly continuous forests and grasslands adversely affects reproductive success of birds, yet little is known of the potential effects on avian communities in Western shrublands. I used multi-model inference to evaluate the potential effects of local and landscape variables on nest predation and brood parasitism, and behavioral observations of color-banded birds to evaluate the potential effects of habitat fragmentation on seasonal reproductive success of passerines in the shrubsteppe of eastern Washington State, USA. Reproductive success of shrubsteppe-obligate passerines was lower in landscapes fragmented by agriculture than in continuous shrubsteppe landscapes. Daily survival rates for nests of Brewer’s Sparrows (Spizella breweri; n = 496) and Sage Thrashers (Oreoscoptes montanus; n = 128) were lower in fragmented landscapes, and seasonal reproductive success (percentage of pairs fledging young) of Sage Sparrows (Amphispiza belli; n = 146) and Brewer’s Sparrows (n = 59) was lower in fragmented landscapes. Rates of parasitism by Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) overall were low (4%) but were significantly greater in fragmented landscapes for Brewer’s Sparrows, and parasitism resulted in fewer young fledged from successful nests. Simple models of population growth using landscape-specific fecundity and estimates of adult survival derived from return rates of banded male Sage Sparrows and Brewer’s Sparrows suggest that fragmented shrubsteppe in Washington may be acting as a population sink for some species. Immediate conservation needs include halting further fragmentation of shrubsteppe, restoring low-productivity agricultural lands and annual grasslands to shrubsteppe where possible, and convincing the public of the intrinsic value of these imperiled ecosystems.