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Rural sprawl affects birds differently in different locations

Rural sprawl
White-throated Sparrow. Photo by Larry Master

new study in the journal Diversity by researchers from Paul Smith’s College Adirondack Watershed Institute (AWI) and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) finds that bird communities in two rapidly developing rural landscapes react differently to increased “rural sprawl.” 

Researchers found that bird communities living in eastern forests of New York’s Adirondack Park are more sensitive to residential subdivisions than western birds found in the more varied landscapes of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) surrounding Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. 

The researchers say that the more patchy landscape in the western shrub steppe of GYE may support bird communities less sensitive to the impacts of fragmentation. Birds living in the largely unbroken, intact forests of the Adirondack Park are more negatively impacted by disturbance.

So-called “exurban” locales, which occur on the fringes of cities, towns, and suburbs, are among the regions experiencing the highest levels of population growth in the U.S. over the last three decades. This is due in part to second homes and new technologies enabling working from remote locations.

The authors say that to protect and conserve birds in both landscapes, focusing on the initial siting of homes may be more effective at conserving birds than attempts to influence human behaviors after construction is completed.  


Broader habitat disruption more harmful

The study found that birds responded more negatively to the broader habitat disruption from the development than they did to specific human-associated disturbances.

For example, these eastern species fared better overall in undeveloped, control, sites: Black-throated Blue Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Winter Wren, White-throated Sparrow, and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. But none of these same species demonstrated a negative response to a specific disturbance such as increased noise or pets around the houses. 

Responses of birds to habitat features and to potential disturbances were highly species-specific, making one-size-fits-all recommendations challenging but also providing opportunities to benefit individual species that may be in need of conservation. 

For example, in the West, Savannah Sparrows and Western Meadowlarks were negatively influenced by pets but not other disturbances such as humans moving around outside or lights on at night. 


Said the study’s lead author Michale Glennon of Paul Smith’s College Adirondack Watershed Institute: “Some of our findings were surprising – we expected birds to react more negatively to potential disturbances such as pets and noise. Contrasting findings suggest that there may be indirect benefits to some forms of disturbance – for example, some nest predators, like squirrels, may be scared away by dogs – and these benefits may outweigh costs.”

Rural sprawl: Local governments play big role 

The authors say that local governments and planning boards have the ability to guide the location and configuration of developments through local land-use ordinances, and that existing ordinances may require only small adjustments to yield relatively large benefits for wildlife. Similarly, there may be opportunities for homeowners’ associations to influence subdivision or neighborhood level decisions that affect habitat availability and structure at broader scales and in turn influence bird communities. 

“Our findings underscore the important role local planning boards can play by guiding the location and configuration of development on private lands to protect critical habitats for wildlife,” said co-author Heidi Kretser of WCS.


Conservationists increasingly rely on private lands to save wildlife and wild places. Among recent executive orders aimed at environmental protection, President Biden committed to 30 x 30, an ambitious plan already backed by 50 countries and aimed at protecting at least 30 percent of the planet by 2030 in an effort to stem the global loss of biodiversity and use natural systems to fight climate change. Managing private lands for conservation purposes will play a critical role in achieving this goal.

Thanks to Wildlife Conservation Society for providing this news.

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