Avian Nest Box Selection and Nest Success in Burned and Unburned Southwestern Riparian Forest


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ABSTRACT Riparian forest communities in the southwestern United States were historically structured by a disturbance regime of annual flooding. In recent decades, however, frequency of flooding has decreased and frequency of wildfires has increased. Riparian forests provide important breeding habitat for a large variety of bird species, and the effects of this altered disturbance regime on birds and their breeding habitat is largely unknown. To evaluate effects of high-intensity spring and summer wildfire on the quality of breeding bird habitat in the Middle Rio Grande valley, we measured vegetation structure and composition, avian nest use, and nest success at 4 unburned plots and 4 wildfire plots over a 3-year period. We measured avian nest use and success at nest boxes located in unburned riparian forest plots and plots recently burned by wildfire. Recent wildfire plots (<7 yr after fire) had a much different vegetation structure than unburned plots; an older (>7 yr after fire) wildfire plot more closely resembled its paired unburned plot than did recently burned plots. Ash-throated flycatchers (Myiarchus cinerascens) and Bewick's wrens (Thryomanes bewickii; hereafter, flycatchers and wrens, respectively) used nest boxes in most of the plots. A model selection procedure applied to logistic regressions showed that frequency of nest box use by flycatchers was positively associated with wildfire, although flycatchers used boxes in unburned plots as well. Wrens showed a preferential use of nest boxes that were in unburned sites and in close proximity to vegetative cover. Growth rates, feeding rates, and fledging mass of flycatchers were similar in wildfire and unburned plots. Growth rates for wrens were slower in wildfire plots, while feeding rates and fledging mass were similar. Nest predation varied between years, was higher for flycatchers than for wrens, and was not directly influenced by wildfire. Model selection showed that predation increased with grass cover, an indicator of forest openness, and decreased with distance to habitat edge. Recovery of dense vegetation appears important in maintaining populations of Bewick's wrens, whereas ash-throated flycatchers were less sensitive to vegetative structure and composition of postfire succession. Postfire management that maintains nest sites in large forest strips would enhance nesting density and success of these cavity-nesting birds in riparian zones.