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When species become generalists: on-going large-scale changes in bird habitat specialization


J. Y. Barnagaud, Cemagref, UR EFNO, Domaine des Barres, 45290 Nogent sur Vernisson, France. E-mail:


Aim  Species specialization is often considered as a stable species characteristic over the short term. However, this assumption has hardly been tested, even though it may impair our ability to track the impoverishment of biodiversity induced by the rapid replacement of specialists by generalists. We tested whether species specialization in birds varied over a short period of time, and assessed whether variations in species specialization influence community-level metrics of biotic homogenization.

Location  France.

Methods  We studied the variations in specialization to habitat closure of 94 bird species over the period 2002–08, accounting for species variations in mean density, habitat preference and migratory status. We then quantified the temporal changes in a community specialization index, which measures functional homogenization.

Results  Specialization decreased over time for 35 species (37%), while 46 (49%) showed non-significant negative trends and 13 (14%) had null or non-significant positive trends. The more a species was specialized at the beginning of the study, the more it generalized. We additionally found that changes in the specialization level were density dependent: 34 species (36%) became more generalist in years of higher densities while only one became more specialized. At the community level, accounting for this inter-annual variability in species specialization accentuated the trend in the functional homogenization of bird communities.

Main conclusions  Habitat specialization is a labile ecological trait, which may change in the short term following habitat degradation, density dependence and source–sink dynamics. Accounting for short-term temporal variations in observed habitat specialization of species can increase our understanding of the effects of global changes on species strategies and community dynamics.