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Seeking parsimony in landscape metrics


  • Mary Ann Cunningham,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Earth Science and Geography, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY 12604, USA
    • Department of Earth Science and Geography, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY 12604, USA.
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  • Douglas H. Johnson

    1. U.S. Geological Survey, Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN 55108, USA
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  • Associate Editor: Daniel J. Twedt.


Numerous metrics describing landscape patterns have been used to explain landscape-scale habitat selection by birds. The myriad metrics, their complexity, and inconsistent responses to them by birds have led to a lack of clear recommendations for managing land for desired species. The amount of a target land cover type in the landscape (percentage cover) often has been a useful indicator of the likelihood of species occurrence or of habitat selection; is it also a more adequate and parsimonious measure for explaining species distributions than patch size or more complex measures of landscape configuration? We examined responses of 6 woodland-interior bird species to the percentage tree cover within prescribed areas and to patch size, edge density, and other metrics. We examined responses in 2 landscapes: a mixed woodland-savanna and an eastern deciduous forest. For these 6 species, percentage tree cover explained bird occurrence as well as or better than other measures in both study areas. We then repeated the analysis on a larger group of woodland species, including those associated with woodland edges. The bird species we studied had varied responses to landscape metrics, but percentage tree cover was the strongest explanatory variable overall. Although percentage cover estimated from remotely sensed data is an inexact representation of habitat in the landscape, it does appear to be reliable and easy to conceptualize, relative to other measures. We suggest that, at least for woodland habitat, percentage cover is a broadly useful measure that can be helpful in pragmatic questions of explaining responses to landscapes or in anticipating responses to landscape change. © 2011 The Wildlife Society.