Experimental evidence that deer browsing reduces habitat suitability for breeding Common Nightingales Luscinia megarhynchos


*Corresponding author.
Email: chas.holt@bto.org


The ecological impacts of increasing populations of deer (Cervidae) in Europe and North America are becoming more widespread and pronounced. Within Britain, it has been suggested that declines in several woodland bird species, particularly those dependent on dense understorey vegetation, may be at least partly due to these effects. Here we present experimental evidence of the effects of deer browsing on the fine-scale habitat selection and habitat use by a bird species in Europe. The study was conducted in a wood in eastern England where a decrease in Common Nightingale Luscinia megarhynchos numbers has coincided with a large increase in deer numbers. Eight woodland plots were cut to produce young coppice regrowth (a favoured habitat for Nightingales). Deer were excluded from half of each plot using steel fences, thus creating eight experimental pairs of exclosures (unbrowsed) and controls (browsed). Radiotelemetry and territory mapping of male Nightingales showed strong selection of exclosures. The density of territories was 15 times greater in the exclosures than in grazed controls. Selection for exclosures was significant for the minimum convex polygon, 95% kernel and 50% core home-ranges used by seven radiotracked males. Tracked birds spent 69% of their time in the 6% of the study area protected from deer. Intensified browsing by deer influenced local settlement patterns of Nightingales, supporting the conclusion that increased deer populations are likely to have contributed to declines of Nightingales in Britain, and potentially those of other bird species dependent on dense understorey.