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Modeling trends from North American Breeding Bird Survey data: a spatially explicit approach

January 1, 2013

Population trends, defined as interval-specific proportional changes in population size, are often used to help identify species of conservation interest. Efficient modeling of such trends depends on the consideration of the correlation of population changes with key spatial and environmental covariates. This can provide insights into causal mechanisms and allow spatially explicit summaries at scales that are of interest to management agencies. We expand the hierarchical modeling framework used in the North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) by developing a spatially explicit model of temporal trend using a conditional autoregressive (CAR) model. By adopting a formal spatial model for abundance, we produce spatially explicit abundance and trend estimates. Analyses based on large-scale geographic strata such as Bird Conservation Regions (BCR) can suffer from basic imbalances in spatial sampling. Our approach addresses this issue by providing an explicit weighting based on the fundamental sample allocation unit of the BBS. We applied the spatial model to three species from the BBS. Species have been chosen based upon their well-known population change patterns, which allows us to evaluate the quality of our model and the biological meaning of our estimates. We also compare our results with the ones obtained for BCRs using a nonspatial hierarchical model (Sauer and Link 2011). Globally, estimates for mean trends are consistent between the two approaches but spatial estimates provide much more precise trend estimates in regions on the edges of species ranges that were poorly estimated in non-spatial analyses. Incorporating a spatial component in the analysis not only allows us to obtain relevant and biologically meaningful estimates for population trends, but also enables us to provide a flexible framework in order to obtain trend estimates for any area.