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Habitat fragmentation and loss strongly influence the distribution and abundance of passerine birds breeding in Intermountain shrubsteppe. Wildfires, human activities, and change in vegetation communities often are synergistic in these systems and can result in radical conversion from shrubland to grasslands dominated by exotic annuals at large temporal and spatial scales from which recovery to native conditions is unlikely. As a result, populations of 5 of the 12 species in our review of Intermountain shrubsteppe birds are undergoing significant declines; 5 species are listed as at-risk or as candidates for protection in at least one state. The process by which fragmentation affects bird distributions in these habitats remains unknown because most research has emphasized the detection of population trends and patterns of habitat associations at relatively large spatial scales. Our research indicates that the distribution of shrubland-obligate species, such as Brewer's Sparrows (Spizella breweri), Sage Sparrows (Amphispiza belli), and Sage Thrashers (Oreoscoptes montanus), was highly sensitive to fragmentation of shrublands at spatial scales larger than individual home ranges. In contrast, the underlying mechanisms for both habitat change and bird population dynamics may operate independently of habitat boundaries. We propose alternative, but not necessarily exclusive, mechanisms to explain the relationship between habitat fragmentation and bird distribution and abundance. Fragmentation might influence productivity through differences in breeding density, nesting success, or predation. However, local and landscape variables were not significant determinants either of success, number fledged, or probability of predation or parasitism (although our tests had relatively low statistical power). Alternatively, relative absence of natal philopatry and redistribution by individuals among habitats following fledging or post-migration could account for the pattern of distribution and abundance. Thus, boundary dynamics may be important in determining the distribution of shrubland-obligate species but insignificant relative to the mechanisms causing the pattern of habitat and bird distribution. Because of the dichotomy in responses, Intermountain shrubsteppe systems present a unique challenge in understanding how landscape composition, configuration, and change influence bird population dynamics.
Additional Publication Details
Effects of habitat fragmentation on passerine birds breeding in Intermountain shrubsteppe