Browsing down our natural heritage: Deer impacts on vegetation structure and songbird populations across an island archipelago

Declines in forest and woodland birds have largely been attributed to habitat loss and fragmentation. In the past decade, however, the potential for herbivores to influence bird species abundance and community composition via their direct impact on vegetation structure has also been recognised. We tested the hypothesis that deer influence vegetation structure and bird assemblages in a large island archipelago in western North America using surveys of 18 islands with deer densities ranging from 0 to over 1 deer/ha. Amongst these islands, reduced predation and hunting pressure has allowed deer populations to increase above those likely to have existed in pre-European times. Our results support a growing body of evidence that deer regulate both the cover and architecture of understory vegetation which in turn profoundly affects island bird assemblages. Deer-free islands supported the most abundant and diverse bird fauna. Iconic songbirds such as the rufous hummingbird, song and fox sparrow were abundant on islands with no deer but substantially reduced on islands with high deer densities. Only one bird species, the darkeyed junco, preferred moderate and high density deer islands. Our observations suggest that current cohorts of palatable shrubs on islands with high deer densities are relatively old and potentially represent an impending extinction debt, where the full effects of high deer density on island biotamay take decades to fully unfold. Our results suggest that deer densities below a threshold of 0.1 deer/ha should allow native vegetation to recover and a rich and diverse bird species assemblage to persist. We suggest that adaptive management be used to test the validity of this threshold, and that without active management of deer abundance, local extinctions of native flora and fauna appear likely to accelerate.

Read the entire article here (PDF):

Browsing down our natural heritage: Deer impacts on vegetation structure and songbird populations across an island archipelago (1.9 MB)

Tags: , , ,

Comments are closed.