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Factors influencing breeding avifauna abundance and habitat selection in the alpine ecosystem of Colorado




Spear, Shelley Laine, author
Aldridge, Cameron L., advisor
Skagen, Susan K., committee member
Doherty, Paul F., Jr., committee member

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Species in alpine habitat occupy high elevation areas with limited scope for upslope migration, and as a result are expected to react sensitively to climate-caused habitat alteration. Changes in temperature are causing an advancement of treeline and rearrangement of habitat and species distributions. Alpine birds in particular are predicted to be impacted by climate change, especially species that breed in and are endemic to this ecosystem. In order to understand just how sensitively alpine birds will respond if their habitat structure is altered by climate change, determining the fine-scale mechanisms driving their current relationships with alpine habitat is important. In Chapter 1, I discuss some of the relationships between birds and their surrounding environment and the importance of understanding these species-habitat interactions. I introduce the alpine breeding focal species and how some of these avian species have exhibited population declines in Colorado. I also present my research objectives that aimed to understand breeding avifauna abundance in relation to fine-scale habitat features (Chapter 2), and how specific habitat characteristics drive important breeding site selection for an alpine endemic species (Chapter 3). Chapters 2 and 3 (described below) are data chapters written in a format to be submitted for journal publications. In Chapter 2, I test how fine-scale habitat and environmental characteristics influence abundance of avian species breeding in Colorado's alpine ecosystem. I provide results on how abundance and occurrence of these breeding species were influenced by abiotic, biotic, anthropogenic, temporal, and spatial factors in the alpine. Biotic components affected the abundance of all three of the breeding birds that we modeled using count data; American pipit (Anthus rubescens), horned lark (Eremophila alpestris), and white-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys oriantha). However, abiotic, anthropogenic, spatial and temporal factors also contributed to their abundance and occurrence. Knowing which fine-scale factors influence these alpine species' abundance the most, will allow us to prioritize conservation efforts for each particular species, and improve our ability to predict how their abundance will change if alpine habitat is altered in response to climate change. In Chapter 3, I ask how fine-scale habitat and environmental characteristics influence nest and brood-site selection by breeding white-tailed ptarmigan (Lagopus leucura) in Colorado's alpine. I conducted analyses across multiple spatial scales: patch and site level, at nesting and brood-rearing sites. Forage resources and protective cover were the prominent features driving selection at these two alpine sites during both breeding periods. Specifically, nest site selection at the patch scale was more influenced by percent cover of forage forbs, rock and gravel, and shrubs and willows. However, at the site scale, we found hens selected nest sites when percentage of graminoid cover was less and elevations were lower. Hens selected brood sites at the patch scale that were in closer proximity to willows and shrubs and that had rock and gravel cover to a particular threshold. A subset of our brood data indicated brood site selection was driven by abundance of insects over vegetation components. In this chapter, I highlighted the dependence on forage quantity and protective cover across two ptarmigan breeding stages, as well as differences among scales. These findings demonstrated the importance of considering a spatial resolution with a temporal aspect (i.e., different breeding stages) in resource selection studies especially when habitat covariates are collected at fine spatial scales. With all aspects of this research, I discuss in each chapter how conducting additional and longer-term studies on a fine-scale basis helps to not only establish further alpine breeding bird-habitat relationships in these areas, but in identifying if populations are stable, and if and when they respond to changes in habitat structure. Furthermore, in my final section, Chapter 4, I suggest analyzing these relationships across a larger extent and propose how a landscape-scale analysis can be applied to breeding bird species-habitat relationships in the future to determine at what scale these species could respond if climate change impacts their alpine habitat.


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