Dynamic multi-species occupancy models reveal individualistic habitat preferences in a high-altitude grassland bird community

PeerJ. 2019 Feb 15;7:e6276. doi: 10.7717/peerj.6276. eCollection 2019.


Moist, high-altitude grasslands of eastern South African harbour rich avian diversity and endemism. This area is also threatened by increasingly intensive agriculture and land conversion for energy production. This conflict is particularly evident at Ingula, an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area located within the least conserved high-altitude grasslands and which is also the site of a new Pumped Storage Scheme. The new management seeks to maximise biodiversity through manipulation of the key habitat variables: grass height and grass cover through burning and grazing to make habitat suitable for birds. However, different species have individual habitat preferences, which further vary through the season. We used a dynamic multi-species occupancy model to examine the seasonal occupancy dynamics of 12 common grassland bird species and their habitat preferences. We estimated monthly occupancy, colonisation and persistence in relation to grass height and grass cover throughout the summer breeding season of 2011/12. For majority of these species, at the beginning of the season occupancy increased with increasing grass height and decreased with increasing grass cover. Persistence and colonisation decreased with increasing grass height and cover. However, the 12 species varied considerably in their responses to grass height and cover. Our results suggest that management should aim to provide plots which vary in grass height and cover to maximise bird diversity. We also conclude that the decreasing occupancy with increasing grass cover and low colonisation with increasing grass height and cover is a results of little grazing on our study site. We further conclude that some of the 12 selected species are good indicators of habitat suitability more generally because they represent a range of habitat needs and are relatively easy to monitor.

Keywords: Grass height and cover; Grazing and fire; Habitat management; Habitat suitability; Hierarchical occupancy models; Monitoring; Occupancy.

Associated data

  • Dryad/10.5061/dryad.pn3623b

Grant support

The first author was supported in the position of BirdLife South Africa Ingula Project Manager with funding by Eskom through The Ingula Partnership. The Mazda Wildlife Fund supported the first author with a vehicle for the duration of the project, while employed by BirdLife South Africa. Res Altwegg was supported by the National Research Foundation of South Africa. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.