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Estimating the effects of habitat and biological interactions in an avian community

August 20, 2015

We used repeated sightings of individual birds encountered in community-level surveys to investigate the relative roles of habitat and biological interactions in determining the distribution and abundance of each species. To analyze these data, we developed a multispecies N-mixture model that allowed estimation of both positive and negative correlations between abundances of different species while also estimating the effects of habitat and the effects of errors in detection of each species. Using a combination of single- and multispecies N-mixture modeling, we examined for each species whether our measures of habitat were sufficient to account for the variation in encounter histories of individual birds or whether other habitat variables or interactions with other species needed to be considered. In the community that we studied, habitat appeared to be more influential than biological interactions in determining the distribution and abundance of most avian species. Our results lend support to the hypothesis that abundances of forest specialists are negatively affected by forest fragmentation. Our results also suggest that many species were associated with particular types of vegetation as measured by structural attributes of the forests. The abundances of 6 of the 73 species observed in our study were strongly correlated. These species included large birds (American Crow and Red-winged Blackbird) that forage on the ground in open habitats and small birds (Red-eyed Vireo, House Wren, Hooded Warbler, and Prairie Warbler) that are associated with dense shrub cover. Species abundances were positively correlated within each size group and negatively correlated between groups. Except for the American Crow, which preys on eggs and nestlings of small song birds, none of the other 5 species is known to display direct interactions, so we suspect that the correlations may have been associated with species-specific responses to habitat components not adequately measured by our covariates.