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Perennial biomass feedstocks enhance avian diversity


Present address: Bruce A. Robertson, Smithsonian Conservation Biologist Institute, Migratory Bird Center, National Zoological Park, Washington, DC 20008-2537, USA, tel. +1 206 718 9172, e-mail:


Federal mandates to increase biofuel production in North America will require large new tracts of land with potential to negatively impact biodiversity, yet empirical information to guide implementation is limited. Because the temperate grassland biome will be a production hotspot for many candidate feedstocks, production is likely to impact grassland birds, a group of major conservation concern. We employed a multiscaled approach to investigate the relative importance of arthropod food availability, microhabitat structure, patch size and landscape-scale habitat structure and composition as factors shaping avian richness and abundance in fields of one contemporary (corn) and two candidate cellulosic biomass feedstocks (switchgrass and mixed-grass prairie) not currently managed as crops. Bird species richness and species density increased with patch size in prairie and switchgrass, but not in corn, and was lower in landscapes with higher forest cover. Perennial plantings supported greater diversity and biomass of arthropods, an important food for land birds, but neither metric was important in explaining variation in the avian community. Avian richness was higher in perennial plantings with greater forb content and a more diverse vegetation structure. Maximum bird species richness was commonly found in fields of intermediate vegetation density and grassland specialists were more likely to occur in prairies. Our results suggest that, in contrast to corn, perennial biomass feedstocks have potential to provide benefits to grassland bird populations if they are cultivated in large patches within relatively unforested landscapes. Ultimately, genetic improvement of feedstock genets and crop management techniques that attempt to maximize biomass production and simplify crop vegetation structure will be likely to reduce the value of perennial biomass plantings to grassland bird populations.

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