For songbird conservation, it's not the size that matters

August 8, 2018, University of Manitoba
Manitoba's endangered burrowing owl. Credit: Janet Ng

University of Manitoba researchers have published new findings that can help us save grassland birds, whose populations have declined more severely than species of any other Canadian ecosystem.

Habitat loss is the usual culprit in such scenarios, but U of M graduate student Jessica Lockhart and professor Nicola Koper found that this time, it wasn't.

Working in southwest Manitoba, they found that ever-decreasing prairie habitat was less to blame than how many edges cut through the existing habitat; this results in the breaking apart of habitat, an effect known as habitat . These edges could stem from roads, industrial development, or a patch of cropland laid among the natural grasses.

"It was surprising to find this," says Lockhart, a master's student in the U of M's Natural Resources Institute and lead author of the study. "Studies conducted in other ecosystems suggest that impacts from are generally much stronger than those from fragmentation but in this case we found the opposite."

Habitat edges, a major consequence of habitat fragmentation, help predators find nests, and roads and croplands can also introduce noise, contaminants, or invasive plants. Further studies will investigate which factors are most influential, but for now, it's clear that in habitat, even relatively small sections must remain unmarred by human activity to conserve .

The endangered chestnut-collared longspur. Credit: Jennie Horvat
"One key result is that grassland songbird abundance and numbers of species both declined as a result of ," says Koper. "This means that these negative impacts are not restricted to just a few species, but to the grassland bird community in general. And this is a big problem, because grassland have declined so significantly in the last few decades. If we convert a patch of prairie to cropland, or build a new road, from the birds' perspective we lose way more habitat than from the human's perspective, because all the grassland that's now near that new human development is less usable by birds. So there's just less and less space for them to live."

Lockhart and Koper published their findings in the journal Landscape Ecology. Their paper, "Northern prairie songbirds are more strongly influenced by grassland configuration than grassland amount," concludes that the breaking apart of habitat has to be considered when developing and managing landscapes for conservation because further fragmentation could lead to greater loss of these at-risk species. Although Lockhart and Koper caution that habitat preservation must always be paramount, these birds need all the help we can offer. Reducing the fragmentation of existing grasslands is also critical.

The World Wildlife Fund reported last year in their Living Planet report that since 1970, populations of grassland songbirds plunged 69 per cent.

"On the plus side, our research suggests that building bigger, continuous patches of grassland can really help birds living here," says Koper. "We can accomplish this by protecting lands next to existing protected areas to make them even bigger – lots of great NGOs in Manitoba that protect are working on this already. And conserving prairies helps secure sustainability of both wildlife and the cattle ranching community. But the bottom line is that we need to protect our remaining prairies to protect this highly at risk group of species."

Explore further: Abandoned farmlands enrich bird communities

More information: Jessica Lockhart et al. Northern prairie songbirds are more strongly influenced by grassland configuration than grassland amount, Landscape Ecology (2018). DOI: 10.1007/s10980-018-0681-5

Related Stories

Abandoned farmlands enrich bird communities

August 3, 2018

Agriculture and conversion of pristine lands into urban or industrial areas have exerted immense pressure on natural biota due to habitat destruction and fragmentation in industrialized countries around the world. But since ...

Recommended for you

Matter waves and quantum splinters

March 25, 2019

Physicists in the United States, Austria and Brazil have shown that shaking ultracold Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs) can cause them to either divide into uniform segments or shatter into unpredictable splinters, depending ...

How tree diversity regulates invading forest pests

March 25, 2019

A national-scale study of U.S. forests found strong relationships between the diversity of native tree species and the number of nonnative pests that pose economic and ecological threats to the nation's forests.

Study suggests trees are crucial to the future of our cities

March 25, 2019

The shade of a single tree can provide welcome relief from the hot summer sun. But when that single tree is part of a small forest, it creates a profound cooling effect. According to a study published today in the Proceedings ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.