• Avian richness;
  • breeding bird atlas;
  • Canada;
  • habitat heterogeneity;
  • habitat loss;
  • human impact;
  • natural area;
  • Ontario;
  • species–area relationship


Aim  The species–area relationship has been applied in the conservation context to predict monotonic species richness declines as natural area is converted to human-dominated land covers. However, some conversion of natural cover could introduce new habitat types and allow new open habitat species to occur. Moreover, decelerating richness–area relationships suggest that, as natural area is converted to human-dominated covers, more species will be added to the rare habitat than are lost from the common one. Area effects and increased habitat diversity could each lead to a peaked relationship between species richness and the relative amount of natural area. The purpose of this study is to quantify the effect on avian species richness of conversion of natural area to human-dominated land cover.

Location  Ontario, Canada.

Methods  We evaluated the responses of total avian richness, forest bird richness and open habitat bird richness to remaining natural area within 993 quadrats, each of 100 km2. We quantified the amount of natural land cover and land-cover heterogeneity using remote sensing data. We used structural equation modelling (SEM) to disentangle the relationships among avian richness, natural area and land-cover heterogeneity.

Results  Spatial variation in avian richness was a peaked function of remaining natural area, such that losses of up to 44% of the natural area increased avian richness. This partly reflects increased variety of land cover; however, SEM suggests that much of the increase in richness is due to pure area effects. Richness of forest species declined by two species over this range of natural cover loss while open habitat bird richness increased by approximately 20 species. The effect of natural area on species richness is consistent with the sum of species–area curves for natural habitat species and human-dominated habitat species.

Main conclusions  At least in northern temperate forests, almost half of the natural land cover can be converted to human-dominated forms before avian richness declines. Conversion of < 50% of regional natural area to human-dominated land cover can benefit open-area species richness with relatively few losses of forest obligate species. However, with > 50% natural area conversion, species begin to drop out of regional assemblages.