The Effect of Urban Growth on Birds

April 11, 2008 by  
Filed under Features

Have you ever wondered how different birds adapt to changes urban growth and other changes in their environments? A team of researchers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the Arizona State University did. So they set about finding out the answer to the question and have discovered some interesting results.

As part of efforts to develop effective conservation strategies for plants and animals, a team of researchers has set about trying to study the effects that fast-growing urban areas have on various bird species. The surprising results suggest that while some species thrive in urban environments, others prefer to stay far away from them, while still others can live quite comfortably in both environments. The idea of the study was to determine how animals and plants are able to adapt to the ever-changing landscapes that surround them.

It is already a long-acknowledged fact that urbanization has a large impact on native animal species as it destroys their natural habitat and changes how they interact with other species. However, little is known about how well they actually adapt to their change in environment and so the university team set about trying to determine just how well, or how poorly, various bird species adapted to the change. Using bird count data that was taken during the course of a two-year period in Phoenix, Arizona, the team used computer models developed for mineral mapping to create an analytical database that revealed some very notable trends in the distribution of different bird species in the Phoenix area. They focused mainly on the rock dove or pigeon, the cactus wren and the phainopepla.

You don’t have to be particularly knowledgeable to accurately guess that the pigeons showed a definite preference for urban areas. However, they were not particularly fond of outlying desert and agricultural regions. In stark contrast, the phainopepla was found mainly in deserted areas. This crested bird’s native environment is the desert and dry woodland areas and it feeds on mistletoe berries and insects. However, as urbanization increased, the phainopepla decreased. In fact, studies showed that this species was unable to live in urban areas successfully. Thus the bird is very sensitive to loss of habitat and this is one of the main reasons behind their sharp and perilous decline in numbers in recent years. The cactus wren, on the other hand, showed an ability to live both in rural and urban areas. While it is usually associated with deserts, it is able to nest on satellite dishes and other artificial structures and so it adapts to the changing environment.

The computer models were a very helpful tool in the study as they filled in the gaps and helped the researchers to predict where the birds would be more likely to be found in urban areas. Since these urban environments are very different from a bird’s natural habitat, it is often difficult to predict what sort of items they might use to try and survive successfully. This was where the computer models provided the most assistance. The results will likely go a long way to furthering urban ecology research.

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