Disproportionate declines in ground-foraging insectivorous birds after mistletoe removal

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Insectivorous birds have been recognized as disproportionately sensitive to land-use intensification and habitat loss, with those species feeding primarily on the ground exhibiting some of the most dramatic declines. Altered litter inputs and availability of epigeic arthropods have been suggested to underlie reduced abundances and shrinking distributions but direct evidence is lacking. I used a patch-scale removal experiment in southern Australia to evaluate whether ground-feeding insectivores are especially vulnerable to altered litter-fall. Building on work demonstrating the importance of mistletoe litter to nutrient dynamics, litter was reduced by removing mistletoe (Loranthaceae) from one set of eucalypt woodlands, responses of birds three years after mistletoe removal compared with otherwise similar control woodlands containing mistletoe. Despite not feeding on mistletoes directly, insectivores exhibited the greatest response to mistletoe removal. Among woodland residents, ground foraging insectivores showed the most dramatic response; treatment woodlands losing an average of 37.4% of their pre-treatment species richness. Once these 19 species of ground-foraging insectivores were excluded, remaining woodland species showed no significant effect of mistletoe removal. This response reflects greater initial losses in treatment woodlands during the study (which coincided with a severe drought) and double the number of species returning to control woodlands (where mistletoe numbers and litter were not manipulated) post-drought. These findings support the productivity-based explanation of declining insectivores, suggesting diminished litter-fall reduced habitat quality for these birds via decreased availability of their preferred prey. In addition to altered prey availability, interactions between litter-fall and epigeic arthropods exemplify the importance of below-ground / above-ground linkages driving ecosystem function.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-12
Number of pages12
JournalPLoS One
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2015


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