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Implications of tree expansion in shrubland ecosystems for two generalist avian predators

June 15, 2023

Shrublands globally have undergone structural changes due to plant invasions, including the expansion of native trees. Removal of native conifer trees, especially juniper (Juniperus spp.), is occurring across the Great Basin of the western U.S. to support declining sagebrush (Artemisia spp.) habitats and associated wildlife species, such as greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus). One justification for conifer removal is that it may improve survival of sagebrush-associated wildlife by reducing the abundance of avian predators. However, the relationship between conifer expansion and predator distributions has not been explicitly evaluated. Further, although structural characteristics of habitat are important for generalist predators, overall prey abundance may also affect habitat use by predators. We examined habitat use of common ravens (Corvus corax) and red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis), two generalist predators whose populations are increasing in western North America, to variation in structural characteristics and prey distributions in sagebrush habitat that has experienced conifer expansion. Structural characteristics of habitat were important predictors of habitat use for both ravens and red-tailed hawks, whereas measures of prey abundance were unimportant for both species likely because generalist predators can use a wide variety of food resources. Ravens, but not red-tailed hawks, responded positively to increasing cover of juniper and the probability of habitat use was highest (> 0.95) where juniper cover within 100 m was > 20%. Habitat use by red-tailed hawks, but not ravens, was greater near cliffs but was not associated with juniper cover. Our study suggests that the removal of conifer in similar environments may lower the probability of habitat use for ravens, a common predator with significant impacts on many prey species. Therefore, we suggest conifer removal may improve sage-grouse reproductive success and survival depending on responses to conifer removal from other predators. Our results may be reflective of similar changes in rangeland ecosystems around the world undergoing expansion of conifer and other woody vegetation. Though species identities differ from sagebrush habitats, generalist avian predators in other habitats may have similar relationships with structural resources.

Publication Year 2023
Title Implications of tree expansion in shrubland ecosystems for two generalist avian predators
DOI 10.1371/journal.pone.0286478
Authors Aaron C. Young, Todd E. Katzner, Douglas J. Shinneman, Tracey N. Johnson
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title PLoS ONE
Index ID 70245102
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center