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Keywords:

  • savanna, oaks, fire, bird communities, bird foraging guilds, restoration ecology

Abstract

Restoration of many terrestrial plant communities involves the reintroduction of fire. However, there have been few studies of the effects of fire on the avifauna during the restoration process. To study the effects of oak savanna restoration on avian communities, breeding birds were censused and the vegetation structure documented in seven experimental burn units (8–18 ha) that had experienced different frequencies of controlled burns during the past 31 years (0–26 burns). Data were analyzed with both direct and indirect gradient analyses using multivariate techniques. The results showed that, as savanna restoration proceeded, there was a general decline in predominantly insectivorous species, particularly those that feed in the upper canopy region (leaves and air space), and a general increase in omnivorous species, particularly those that feed on the ground and in the lower canopy. Insectivorous bark gleaners (woodpeckers) also increased during restoration and were correlated with the increase in standing dead trees resulting from the fires. Overall, savanna restoration resulted in increases in the abundance of many open country bird species, including many species that have been declining in central and eastern North America, including red-headed woodpecker, Baltimore oriole, eastern kingbird, vesper sparrow, field sparrow, lark sparrow, brown thrasher, American goldfinch, and brown-headed cowbird. The shifts in species and guilds were correlated with changes in burn frequency and the macro vegetation structure—tree and shrub density, leaf area index, and relative proportion of standing dead trees. The findings show that savanna restoration can increase bird diversity and provide important habitat for uncommon or declining bird species. These birds are most likely attracted to one or more of the distinctive habitat features of the restored savanna environments, including scattered mature trees, standing dead trees and snags, and presence of both shrubby and grassland vegetation. The findings also suggest that restoration ecologists and wildlife biologists will need to work together to achieve desired goals, since different types of savanna restoration efforts may produce different effects on the breeding bird community.