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Importance of Urban Habitat Patches to Migratory Songbirds

Samantha Eckrich
Advisor: Dr. David Shealer

With growing urbanization, small-scale wilderness patches become more important for
wildlife as larger forests, prairies, or other habitats become increasingly less available.
Migratory songbirds have been shown to utilize these areas as stopover sites on the way to
breeding and wintering areas. These patches can serve vital functions for birds to replenish
energy and nutrient reserves during migration (Matthews and Rodewald 2010). Although a
significant amount of study has been directed toward migratory birds in larger natural areas, the
importance of smaller urban patches is not well understood (Pautasso et al. 2011). How smallscale urban habitats are being used and the many factors that may influence their value for
songbirds are yet to be fully examined.

Urbanization is the development of land being inhabited by a high concentration of
human population and is generally a process of continual growth. It is characterized by a
matrix of residential, commercial and industrial infrastructure mixed with areas of natural or
semi-natural areas (Pautasso et al. 2011). Often within urban areas are patches resembling
natural environments found in more rural areas. These patches can include topographical
characteristics and plant diversity fit for a variety of organisms long-term or short-term habitat
needs. Many factors can influence the viability of urban patches in meeting the necessary
conditions various species require for adequate resources.
Urban invasion of natural areas can have a substantial impact on species diversity and
abundance. It has been shown that depletion of natural habitat can have negative effects on
species diversity (Vergara et al. 2010). However, some research has suggested that small, urban
habitat patches can serve as resources reserves for migrating birds (Pautasso et al. 2011). The
quality of the area in terms of resource availability is one potential circumstance impacting bird
population trends.

Most migrating birds cannot make the journey in one consecutive trip. They require
stopover sites to replenish energy. Because of the growing influence of urbanization, stopover
sites are becoming increasingly more relevant in studying bird migratory patterns. Especially
during spring migration, reproduction and eventually population dynamics can be affected by a
lack of or abundance of resources required for a particular species migratory needs. Some
variables that may affect this are habitat size, nest predators, invasive plants, and arthropod
diversity (Matthews and Rodewald 2010).
Some studies present evidence pertinent to this topic. Matthews and Rodewald (2010)
found that the stopover duration of the Swainsons Thrush was not affected by variations in
urban forest patches. Similarly, Seewagen et al.s (2010) study revealed that ovenbirds at an
urban park area used the region for several days before continuing migration. The birds also had
similar behavioral patterns as the same species found in rural habitat areas. A study on Thorntailed Rayaditos in central Chile showed that the birds were found in greater abundance in
fragmented forest patches of larger sizes and with more connectedness to other patches (Vergara
2010). This preliminary evidence suggests that habitat preference by migratory songbirds is
potentially influenced by multiple factors, and small vegetative patches may be a valuable
resource to the birds.
Individual fitness of birds may also impact habitat selection. Shustack and Rodewalds
(2010) research with Acadian Flycatchers found that lower-quality habitats were occupied by
lower-fitness individuals and higher-fitness birds were found in higher-quality habitats. The
health and fitness of individuals may be an indicator of the quality of resources found in a
The Loras College campus contains a small patch of restored native prairie that has been
used for ecological study. Found in an urban area, it serves as a useful model examining the
value of urban habitat patches for bird species. Data have been previously collected examining
the bird population that uses the prairie during migration. Birds will be captured in mist nets and
banded for individual identification. With this method, mark-recapture models can be used to
determine species diversity and to estimate parameters such as length of stay, turnover rates, and
individual fidelity to this site during migration. Factors like species diversity, abundance, and
turnover can be examined at the prairie site.

Research and Review Question

How important are urban habitat patches? In particular, how are songbirds utilizing the
Loras Prairie? Some studies suggest urban habitat sites offer valuable resources to birds
stopping over. The goal of my research is to answer these questions and identify factors that may
have the greatest influence on the viability of urban patches.
In this thesis, I will continue the research done at the Loras prairie collecting bird
population data during Fall migration. Birds will be captured using mist netting, a more
comprehensive method of data collection than visual observation. It is also a relatively safe and
ethical method of working with wild birds. Advantages to this technique include the ability to
track individual birds by banding them. This will allow me to examine trends in turnover since I
will be able to identify how long individual birds are using the prairie versus merely the length of
a species appearance at the site. Another benefit to mist netting is the ability to make more
detailed observations about the condition of the birds since health is a factor that can potentially
be impacted by the quality of habitat, and the energy-level of the bird can affect stopover
duration (Matthews et al. 2010).
I will add onto and analyze the existing bird population data set, particularly noting
patterns in comparing species type, stopover duration, and turnover. The Loras prairie will be
evaluated by measuring its size, shape, and relative level of urban surroundings. Using GIS
(geographic informational systems) technology, I will be able to gauge this by measuring the
number of nearby buildings and their distance from the prairie. There is also existing data
concerning the plant diversity of the area which will be analyzed and considered in answering
these questions.
This thesis will begin with researching related studies and background information.
Between September-November of 2015 I will collect data from the Loras prairie. After that I
will analyze the data sets and continue reviewing other studies relevant to this topic.

Preliminary Results
Birds were captured at the Loras Prairie in the fall between 2010 and 2013. Table 1.
shows the Simpsons reciprocal index of diversity, which provides a measurement of species

diversity for each year. 2013 had a great amount of diversity, followed by 2011, 2012. The year
2010 had the least amount of songbird species diversity. The years with the most birds captured
and highest netting hours had the least diversity according to Simpsons index. Table 2. shows
the six most abundant species captured over the four year period. The great abundance of
Goldfinches captured in 2011 and 2012 compared to other species could be a factor in the
reduced species diversity overall during those years.

Table 1. Bird Species diversity at the Loras Prairie 2010-2013












No. species






Net effort
















Birds/net hr

Table 2. Species richness of six most abundant bird species






American Goldfinch




Slate-colored Junco




White-throated Sparrow



Black-capped Chickadee


Chipping Sparrow


House Wren


Annotated Bibliography
Catterall, C., Cousin, J., Piper, S., & Johnson, G. (2010). Long-term dynamics of bird diversity

in forest and suburb: Decay, turnover or homogenization? Diversity and Distributions,
16, 559-570.
Compares urban habitats to natural forest ecosystems
Examines bird species diversity, species abundance, temporal effect on changes in
species abundance turnover, and bird size
Landscape factors like size and change in urbanization of the area were
Hodgkison, S., Hero, J., & Warnken, J. (2006). The efficacy of small-scale conservation efforts,
as assessed on Australian golf courses. Biological Conservation, 576-586.
Examines various effects of urban habitat patch features on species abundance
and richness
Matthews, S., & Rodewald, P. (2010). Urban Forest Patches and Stopover Duration of Migratory
Swainson's Thrushes. The Condor, 112(1), 96-104.
Stop-over duration in one species, Swainsons Thrush, measured
Compared effect of forest patch characteristics and differences
Contains table with models of Julian date, bird condition, and site differences
Pautasso, M., Bhning-Gaese, K., Clergeau, P., Cueto, V., Dinetti, M., Fernndez-Juricic, E.,
Cantarello, E. (2011). Global macroecology of bird assemblages in urbanized and semi
natural ecosystems. Global Ecology and Biogeography, 20, 426-436.
Compares urban to nonurban forest patches and bird assemblages
Seewagen, C., Slayton, E., & Guglielmo, C. (2010). Passerine migrant stopover duration and
spatial behaviour at an urban stopover site. Acta Oecologica, 36, 484-492.
Explores urban stopover sites and bird population, looking at factors including
fine-scale movement patterns, home range sizes, stopover durations, and arrival
Shustack, D., & Rodewald, A. (2010). A method for detecting undervalued resources with
application to breeding birds. Ecological Applications, 20(7), 2047-2057.
Tremblay, M., & St. Clair, C. (2011). Permeability Of A Heterogeneous Urban Landscape To
The Movements Of Forest Songbirds. Journal of Applied Ecology, 48, 679-688.
Vergara, P., Hahn, I., Zeballos, H., & Armesto, J. (2010). The importance of forest patch
networks for the conservation of the Thorn-tailed Rayaditos in central Chile. Ecological
Research, 25, 683-690.

Although not specifically in urban environment, patch connectivity and area

(dimensions) examined