• arid savanna;
  • bird life history trait;
  • habitat alteration;
  • habitat texture;
  • scattered trees


Land use management practices often change habitat structure, which in turn influence diversity and the composition of floral and faunal assemblages. In the southern Kalahari, southern Africa, heavy grazing after above-average rainfall has lead to bush thickening, and widespread use of arboricides and/or removal of large trees for firewood has also impacted habitat structure. At sites near Kimberley, in South Africa, we investigated the effects of these changes on bird species richness and which aspects of habitat structure most influenced bird assemblage diversity and composition. We also investigated correlations between bird life history traits and habitat characteristics using RLQ analysis. Bird species richness and abundance were both explained by vertical habitat heterogeneity and density of woody species between the heights of 0–2 m, with bird species richness also explained by the density of woody species at heights above 6 m. Large trees within bush-thickened areas dampened the effects of bush thickening on bird assemblages by enabling certain species to persist, consistent with the idea that large trees are keystone structures. Smaller insectivorous gleaners, ball- and cup-nesters, birds with parts of their range extending into arid areas and birds with long-wavelength plumage (i.e. red, orange or yellow plumage) dominated bush-thickened habitats. Seed-eaters, burrow- and ground-nesters, bark-foragers, birds that perch and sally, or perch and swoop to the ground, were all negatively associated with bush thickening. Cavity-nesters, bark-foragers, hawkers, frugivores, birds that perch and sally and species with iridescent plumage were negatively affected by the loss of large trees. Of the common species analysed, nearly 40% of species had life history traits tied to large trees; and 68% had traits negatively associated with bush thickening and removal of large trees together, suggesting that where these changes in habitat occur simultaneously, bird diversity will be strongly affected.