A multi-scale examination of stopover habitat use by birds

Jeffrey J. Buler
Frank R. Moore, University of Southern Mississippi
Stefan Woltmann


Most of our understanding of habitat use by migrating land birds comes from studies conducted at single, small spatial scales, which may overemphasize the importance of intrinsic habitat factors, such as food availability, in shaping migrant distributions. We believe that a multi-scale approach is essential to assess the influence of factors that control en route habitat use. We determined the relative importance of eight variables, each operating at a habitat-patch, landscape, or regional spatial scale, in explaining the differential use of hardwood forests by Nearctic-Neotropical land birds during migration. We estimated bird densities through transect surveys at sites near the Mississippi coast during spring and autumn migration within landscapes with variable amounts of hardwood forest cover. At a regional scale, migrant density increased with proximity to the coast, which was of moderate importance in explaining bird densities, probably due to constraints imposed on migrants when negotiating the Gulf of Mexico. The amount of hardwood forest cover at a landscape scale was positively correlated with arthropod abundance and had the greatest importance in explaining densities of all migrants, as a group, during spring, and of insectivorous migrants during autumn. Among landscape scales ranging from 500 in to 10 km radius, the densities of migrants were, on average, most strongly and positively related to the amount of hardwood forest cover within a 5 km radius. We suggest that hardwood forest cover at this scale may be an indicator of habitat quality that migrants use as a cue when landing at the end of a migratory flight. At the patch scale, direct measures of arthropod abundance and plant community composition were also important in explaining migrant densities, whereas habitat structure was of little importance. The relative amount of fleshy-fruited trees was positively related and was the most important variable explaining frugivorous migrant density during autumn. Although constraints extrinsic to habitat had a moderate role in explaining migrant distributions, our results are consistent with the view that food availability is the ultimate factor shaping the distributions of birds during stopover.