Habitat, topographical, and geographical components structuring shrubsteppe bird communities

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Landscapes available to birds to select for breeding locations are arrayed along multiple dimensions. Identifying the primary gradients structuring shrubsteppe bird communities in the western United States is important because widespread habitat loss and alteration are shifting the environmental template on which these birds depend. We integrated field habitat surveys, GIS coverages, and bird counts from 61 Breeding Bird Survey routes located in shrubsteppe habitats across a >800 000 km2 region to determine the gradients of habitat, topography, and geography underlying bird communities. A small set of habitat features dominated the primary environmental gradients in a canonical ordination; the 13 species in the shrubsteppe bird community were closely packed along the first two axes. Using hierarchical variance partitioning, we identified habitat as the most important pure (31% explained variation) or shared component. Topography (9%) and geography (4%) were minor components but each shared a larger contribution with habitat (habitat-topography 21%; habitat-geography 22%) in explaining the organization of the bird community. In a second tier partition of habitat structure, pure composition (% land cover) was more important (45%) than configuration (patch size and edge) (7%); the two components shared 27% of the explained variation in the bird community axes. Local (9%), community (14%), and landscape (10%) levels contributed equally. Adjacent organizational levels had a larger shared contribution (local-community 26%; community-landscape 27%) than more separated local-landscape levels (21%). Extensive conversion of shrubsteppe habitats to agriculture, exotic annual grasslands, or pinyon (Pinus spp.)–juniper (Juniperus spp.) woodlands is occurring along the primary axes of habitat structure. Because the shrubsteppe bird community was organized along short gradients dominated by habitat features, relatively small shifts in their available environment will exert a strong influence on these bird populations in the absence of buffering by alternative gradients.

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