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Riparian bird density decline in response to biocontrol of Tamarix from riparian ecosystems along the Dolores River in SW Colorado, USA

November 10, 2017

Biocontrol of invasive tamarisk (Tamarix spp.) in the arid Southwest using the introduced tamarisk beetle (Diorhabda elongata) has been hypothesized to negatively affect some breeding bird species, but no studies to date have documented the effects of beetle-induced defoliation on riparian bird abundance. We assessed the effects of tamarisk defoliation by monitoring defoliation rates, changes in vegetation composition, and changes in density of six obligate riparian breeding bird species at two sites along the Dolores River in Colorado following the arrival of tamarisk beetles. We conducted bird point counts from 2010 to 2014 and modeled bird density as a function of native vegetation density and extent of defoliation using hierarchical distance sampling. Maximum annual defoliation decreased throughout the study period, peaking at 32–37% in 2009–2010 and dropping to 0.5–15% from 2011–2014. Stem density of both tamarisk and native plants declined throughout the study period until 2014. Density of all bird species declined throughout most of the study, with Song Sparrow disappearing from the study sites after 2011. Blue Grosbeak, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Yellow Warbler densities were negatively related to defoliation in the previous year, while Lazuli Bunting exhibited a positive relationship with defoliation. These findings corroborate earlier predictions of species expected to be sensitive to defoliation as a result of nest site selection. Tamarisk defoliation thus had short-term negative impacts on riparian bird species; active restoration may be needed to encourage the regrowth of native riparian vegetation, which in the longer-term may result in increased riparian bird density.