Only a small proportion of land can realistically be protected as nature reserves and thus conservation efforts also must focus on the ecological value of agroecosystems and developed areas surrounding nature reserves. In this study, avian communities were surveyed in 11 habitat types in central Panama, across a gradient from extensive forest to intensive agricultural land uses, to examine patterns of species richness and abundance and community composition. Wooded habitats, including extensive and fragmented forests, shade coffee plantations, and residential areas supported the most species and individuals. Nearctic-Neotropical migratory species were most numerous in lowland forest fragments, shade coffee, and residential areas. Introduced Pinus caribbea and sugar cane plantations supported the fewest species compared to all other habitats. Cattle pastures left fallow for less than two years supported more than twice as many total species as actively grazed pastures, such that species richness in fallow pastures was similar to that found in wooded habitats. Community similarities were relatively low among all habitat types (none exceeding the observed 65% similarity between extensive and fragmented lowland forests), but communities in shade coffee and residential areas were 43% and 54% similar to lowland forest fragments, respectively. Fallow pastures and residential areas shared 60% of their species. Bird communities in shade coffee and residential areas were characterized by higher proportions of frugivorous and nectarivorous species than in native forests. These same guilds also were better represented in fallow than in grazed pastures. Raptors and piscivorous species were most prevalent in cattle pastures and rice fields. These results, though based upon only species richness and abundance, demonstrate that many human-altered habitats have potential ecological value for birds, and conservation efforts in tropical areas should focus greater attention on enhancement of agricultural and developed lands as wildlife habitat. To understand the true conservation value of these modified lands will require examination not only of numbers but also of the types of species supported by these habitats, their reproductive output and survival rates.
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Bird communities of natural and modified habitats in Panama