Avian assemblages of invasive Australian Acacia thickets in the Western Cape
Rogers, Andrew M.
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Human-modified habitats form increasingly large components of landscapes, threatening biodiversity and creating challenges for conservation. In some cases altered habitats form entirely novel ecosystems that may support new combinations of species and species abundances, and create habitat space in otherwise transformed landscapes. In the Western Cape of South Africa, woody invasive species contribute to landscape-level habitat transformation and form novel ecosystems. Invasive Australian Acacia species are especially problematic in lowland areas where they create dense thickets and substantially transform both biotic communities and abiotic processes. Despite the prominence of Acacia thickets across the Western Cape, their ability to support native fauna is not well understood and the objective of this study was to assess the significance of Acacia thickets as habitat for the region’s avifauna. Birds were surveyed in Acacia thickets in the south-western Western Cape in three seasons to examine species richness, abundance and functional abundance. Furthermore, I examined the extent to which differences in patch-level vegetation structure alter bird communities. Between survey sites and seasons, significant variation was observed in assemblage richness, density, median body size and biomass. Variation in vegetation density, stem density, mean vegetation height and total canopy cover best explained variation in bird assemblages. Eighty species were estimated to utilize Acacia thickets and assemblages had a mean density of 7.78 birds per ha. The most abundant feeding guilds were the mixed feeders and insectivores. The median body size observed was 15.2 g and the body size frequency distribution of all species in Acacia spanned a similar range compared to the body size frequency distribution for the species list for the entire Western Cape. The mean biomass of bird communities was 0.224 kg per ha. Using data on bird density and biomass, Acacia thickets across the Fynbos Biome support and estimated average of over 21 million birds with a combined biomass of over 600 thousand kg. This study found that Acacia thickets in the Western Cape support a subset of the region’s birds with the most abundant species being small mixed feeders, which are also frequently urban-adapted. Compared with other habitat types, Acacia support bird assemblages with moderate species richness and density. This study shows that Acacia thickets, as a novel habitat, provide a significant amount of habitat space in a highly transformed landscape and highlights the need for comprehensive evaluation of altered habitats before assumptions are made about their ecological value.