Landscape context and selection for forest edge by breeding Brown-headed Cowbirds

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We evaluated support for four alternate hypotheses explaining the distribution of breeding Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) in forests at varying distances from the forest edge in three Midwestern USA landscapes with varying amounts of forest fragmentation (core forest area ranged from 5 to 70%). We focused on breeding cowbirds' use of forest because of the risk of nest parasitism to forest-dwelling hosts and to identify factors affecting breeding cowbird habitat selection. We compared distances of cowbird locations in the forest from the forest edge (“edge distances”) to distances of random forest locations in the entire landscape or within individual cowbird home ranges. We analyzed 1322 locations of 84 cowbirds across three landscapes. We found support for the landscape context hypothesis that breeding cowbird preference for forest edge varied with landscape context. Ninety percent of cowbird locations were within 150–350 m of forest edge, despite the overall availability of forest at greater distances from edge (as far as 500–1450 m) both within cowbird home ranges and the entire forested landscape. Cowbird preference for edge varied by landscape context largely due to differences in the availability of forest edge. In a highly fragmented forest cowbirds utilized the entire forest and likely viewed it as “all edge.” In less fragmented forests, cowbirds preferred edge. We consider how variation in cowbird edge preference might relate to patterns in host abundance, host diversity, and host quality because cowbird movements indicate they are capable of using forest farther from edges.

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