Aim We examined the relative influence of geographical location, habitat structure (physiognomy), and dominant plant species composition (floristics) on avian habitat relationships over a large spatial extent. Although it has been predicted that avian distributions are more likely to covary with physiognomy than with floristics at coarse scales, we sought to determine, more specifically, whether there remained a significant association between gradients in assemblages of bird species and dominant plant species within a general biome type, after statistically controlling for structural variation and geographical location of sampling sites.
Location Our sample consisted of a subset of North American Breeding Bird Census survey sites that covered most of the range of eastern forests, from Florida to Nova Scotia, and west to Minnesota and North Dakota (up to c. 2500 km between sites).
Methods We restricted our analyses to the single year (1981) that provided the largest sample of sites (47) for which vegetation data were available within ± 2 years of the avian surveys. We examined the relationship between avian community composition and tree species composition over this series of forested plots. Data were divided into four sets: (1) bird species abundances, (2) tree species abundances, (3) physiognomic or structural variables and (4) geographical location (latitude and longitude). We performed separate detrended correspondence analysis ordinations of birds and trees, before and after statistically partialling out covariation associated with structural variables and geographical location. To gauge the relationship between the two sets of species we correlated site scores resulting from separate ordinations. We also compared continental-scale patterns of variation in bird and tree assemblages to understand possible mechanisms controlling species distribution at that scale.
Results Both bird and tree communities yielded strong gradients, with first-axis eigenvalues from 0.75 to 0.97. All gradients were relatively long (> 4.0), implying complete turnover in species composition. However, geographical location accounted for < 10% of the total variation associated with any ordination. Prior to partialling out covariation resulting from location and physiognomy, bird species ordinations were strongly correlated with tree species ordinations. The strength of association was reduced after partialling, but one bird and one tree axis remained significantly correlated. There was a significant species–area effect for birds, but not for trees.
Main conclusions There was a significant relationship between bird species assemblages and tree species assemblages in the eastern forests of North America. Even after partialling out covariation associated with spatial location and forest physiognomy, there remained a significant correlation between major axes from bird and tree ordinations, consistent with the hypothesis that floristic variation is likely to be important in organizing assemblages of birds within a general biome type, albeit over a much larger spatial extent than originally predicted. Forest tree species ordinations differed from bird species ordinations in several ways: trees had a higher rate of turnover along underlying environmental gradients; trees appeared more patchily distributed than birds at this scale; and tree species were more spaced out along the underlying ecological gradients, with less overlap. By understanding the relationship between bird assemblages and forest floristics, we might better understand how avian communities are likely to change if tree species distributions are altered as a result of climatic changes.