Assessing the impacts of grazing levels on bird density in woodland habitat: a Bayesian approach using expert opinion



Many studies on birds focus on the collection of data through an experimental design, suitable for investigation in a classical analysis of variance (ANOVA) framework. Although many findings are confirmed by one or more experts, expert information is rarely used in conjunction with the survey data to enhance the explanatory and predictive power of the model.

We explore this neglected aspect of ecological modelling through a study on Australian woodland birds, focusing on the potential impact of different intensities of commercial cattle grazing on bird density in woodland habitat.

We examine a number of Bayesian hierarchical random effects models, which cater for overdispersion and a high frequency of zeros in the data using WinBUGS and explore the variation between and within different grazing regimes and species. The impact and value of expert information is investigated through the inclusion of priors that reflect the experience of 20 experts in the field of bird responses to disturbance.

Results indicate that expert information moderates the survey data, especially in situations where there are little or no data. When experts agreed, credible intervals for predictions were tightened considerably. When experts failed to agree, results were similar to those evaluated in the absence of expert information. Overall, we found that without expert opinion our knowledge was quite weak. The fact that the survey data is quite consistent, in general, with expert opinion shows that we do know something about birds and grazing and we could learn a lot faster if we used this approach more in ecology, where data are scarce. Copyright © 2005 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.