As one approaches the north-eastern limit of pinyon (Pinus spp.) juniper (Juniperus spp.) vegetation on the Colorado Plateau, USA, woodland patches become increasingly disjunct, grading into sagebrush (Artemisia spp.)-dominated landscapes. Patterns of avian species richness in naturally heterogeneous forests may or may not respond to patch discontinuity in the same manner as bird assemblages in fragmented agricultural systems. We used observational data from naturally patchy woodlands and predictions derived from studies of human-modified agricultural forests to estimate the effects of patch area, shape, isolation and distance to contiguous woodland on avian species richness. We predicted that patterns of species richness in naturally patchy juniper woodlands would differ from those observed in fragmented agricultural systems. Our objectives were to (1) estimate the effect of naturally occurring patch structure on avian species richness with respect to habitat affinity and migratory strategy and (2) assess the concordance of the effects to predictions from agricultural forest systems. We used the analogy between populations and communities to estimate species richness, where species are treated as individuals in the application of traditional capture-recapture theory. Information-theoretic model selection showed that overall species richness was explained primarily by the species area relationship. There was some support for a model with greater complexity than the equilibrium theory of island biogeography where the isolation of large patches resulted in greater species richness. Species richness of woodland-dwelling birds was best explained by the equilibrium hypothesis with partial landscape complementation by open-country species in isolated patches. Species richness within specific migratory strategies showed concomitant increases and no shifts in species composition along the patch area gradient. Our results indicate that many patterns of species richness considered to be fragmentation effects may be general consequences of patch discontinuity and are ubiquitous in naturally heterogeneous systems. There was no evidence for the effects of patch shape and distance to contiguous woodland in juniper woodland, suggesting edge effects and dependence upon regional species pools are characteristics of fragmented agricultural systems. Natural patch mosaics may provide benchmarks for evaluating fragmentation effects and managing forests by mimicking natural landscape patterns. ?? 2007 The Zoological Society of London.