Leal, A.I., Acácio, M., Meyer, C.F., Rainho, A. & Palmeirim, J.M. (2019) Grazing improves habitat suitability for many ground-foraging birds in Mediterranean wooded grasslands.Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 270-271, 1-8. DOI:10.1016/j.agee.2018.10.012 (IF2017 3,541; Q1 Ecology)
Wooded grasslands, usually grazed, cover vast areas in Southern Europe and Northern Africa. They host rich resident bird communities and, in winter, receive large numbers of migrants from Central and Northern European woodlands. Many species are partly or entirely dependent on ground foraging and, since in winter food is often the most limiting factor for birds, maintaining suitable ground habitat is crucial.
To study how grazing influences suitability of winter ground habitat for birds, we carried out an experiment in a wooded grassland in Southern Iberia, whereby grazing was controlled in 12 purposely fenced two-hectare plots (4 × 15 sheep/ha, 4 × 3 sheep/ha and 4 × no grazing). We quantified ground habitat features, food abundance and intensity of use by ground-foraging birds in each of these 12 plots. In addition, we made focal observations of birds feeding on the ground and compared the habitat of 1m2 foraging patches with those of nearby control patches.
We found that virtually all birds prefer to forage in patches with short ground vegetation and high food abundance. Measurements of these parameters in the experimental plots showed that while grazing shortens vegetation it decreases food availability, and thus has opposing effects on important determinants of habitat suitability. Nevertheless, the numbers of birds foraging in the plots indicate that, overall, grazing benefits the assemblage of ground-feedingbirds, presumably because for most species the advantages of foraging in less cluttered habitats more than compensate the lower abundance of prey. However, arboreal bird species that make short foraging forays to the ground had lower numbers in grazed plots.
Most bird species that forage on the ground benefited from grazing, and although they can forage under a broad range of grazing levels, some showed clear preferences along the gradient of grazing intensity. Such preferences should be taken into consideration by managers. In general, grazing should be maintained at a level sufficient to open up ground vegetation, increasing the area occupied by patches of short vegetation, in which almost all bird species prefer to forage. At moderate levels, grazing is thus a valuable management tool to promote winter bird habitat quality in Mediterranean wooded grasslands, while increasing the economic value of these threatened landscapes.