Landscape Ecology

, Volume 30, Issue 10, pp 2095–2110 | Cite as

Avian abundance thresholds, human-altered landscapes, and the challenge of assemblage-level conservation

  • Kevin J. Gutzwiller
  • Samuel K. Riffell
  • Curtis H. Flather
Research Article



Land-use change is a global phenomenon with potential to generate abrupt spatial changes in species’ distributions.


We assessed whether theory about the internal structure of bird species’ geographic ranges can be refined to reflect abrupt changes in distribution and abundance associated with human influences on landscapes, and whether the prevalence and diversity of bird–landscape threshold relationships may significantly complicate assemblage-level avian conservation.


For three large regions in the United States, we used the North American Breeding Bird Survey, U.S. National Land Cover Data, and multivariate adaptive regression splines to assess whether land bird species’ abundances were associated with landscape composition and configuration in a threshold fashion.


Threshold relationships between abundance and landscape characteristics were exhibited by 42–60 % of the species studied. The relationships were evident for five land types and five habitat guilds. We observed threshold relationships for more taxonomically diverse groups of bird species, a broader set of land types, and larger geographic extents than have been considered to date.


Avian distribution and abundance theory can be refined by articulating that characteristics of human-altered landscapes have the potential to be widespread and biologically important contributors to abrupt spatial change in species’ abundances. Our findings also expose bird–landscape threshold relationships as pervasive and diverse patterns that impose a much more complicated set of circumstances for assemblage-level conservation of birds than has been widely recognized. To cope with these complications, landscape planners and managers can use optimization analyses, multispecies frameworks, regulatory limits, and multivariate change-point analyses.


Abrupt spatial changes Bird–landscape thresholds Geographic ranges Internal structure Landscape planning and management Threshold pervasiveness and diversity 



We thank M. Knowles and S. Stephens for help with Figs. 1 and 4; L. S. Baggett, T. C. Brown, N. E. McIntyre, and two anonymous referees for reviewing the manuscript; Salford Systems (San Diego, California) for information about computing and plotting algorithms in MARS 2.0 software; and D. Ziolkowski for information about bird names.


This research was supported in part by funds provided by the Rocky Mountain Research Station, Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture (Agreement 09-JV-11221636-208), and by funds provided by Baylor University. Kevin J. Gutzwiller’s work on this project was supported by these funds.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Research involving human subjects

The authors declare that they are in full compliance with all of the ethical standards for publishing in Landscape Ecology. Data retrieved from the North American Breeding Bird Survey Web site involved birds, but the authors’ research did not involve actual interaction with birds, other animals, or human subjects.

Supplementary material

10980_2015_233_MOESM1_ESM.docx (72 kb)
Supplementary Material 1 (DOCX 72 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kevin J. Gutzwiller
    • 1
  • Samuel K. Riffell
    • 2
  • Curtis H. Flather
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of BiologyBaylor UniversityWacoUSA
  2. 2.Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and AquacultureMississippi State UniversityMississippi StateUSA
  3. 3.Rocky Mountain Research StationUSDA Forest ServiceFort CollinsUSA

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