Greater shrub dominance alters breeding habitat and food resources for migratory songbirds in Alaskan arctic tundra

Natalie T. Boelman, Laura Gough, John Wingfield, Scott Goetz, Ashley Asmus, Helen E. Chmura, Jesse S. Krause, Jonathan H. Perez, Shannan K. Sweet, Kevin C. Guay

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

56 Scopus citations


Climate warming is affecting the Arctic in multiple ways, including via increased dominance of deciduous shrubs. Although many studies have focused on how this vegetation shift is altering nutrient cycling and energy balance, few have explicitly considered effects on tundra fauna, such as the millions of migratory songbirds that breed in northern regions every year. To understand how increasing deciduous shrub dominance may alter breeding songbird habitat, we quantified vegetation and arthropod community characteristics in both graminoid and shrub dominated tundra. We combined measurements of preferred nest site characteristics for Lapland longspurs (Calcarius lapponicus) and Gambel's White-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelii) with modeled predictions for the distribution of plant community types in the Alaskan arctic foothills region for the year 2050. Lapland longspur nests were found in sedge-dominated tussock tundra where shrub height does not exceed 20 cm, whereas White-crowned sparrows nested only under shrubs between 20 cm and 1 m in height, with no preference for shrub species. Shrub canopies had higher canopy-dwelling arthropod availability (i.e. small flies and spiders) but lower ground-dwelling arthropod availability (i.e. large spiders and beetles). Since flies are the birds' preferred prey, increasing shrubs may result in a net enhancement in preferred prey availability. Acknowledging the coarse resolution of existing tundra vegetation models, we predict that by 2050 there will be a northward shift in current White-crowned sparrow habitat range and a 20-60% increase in their preferred habitat extent, while Lapland longspur habitat extent will be equivalently reduced. Our findings can be used to make first approximations of future habitat change for species with similar nesting requirements. However, we contend that as exemplified by this study's findings, existing tundra modeling tools cannot yet simulate the fine-scale habitat characteristics that are critical to accurately predicting future habitat extent for many wildlife species.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1508-1520
Number of pages13
JournalGlobal change biology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 1 2015

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.


  • Arthropods
  • Climate change
  • Gambel's White-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelii)
  • Habitat
  • Lapland longspur (Calcarius lapponicus)
  • Migratory songbirds
  • Shrubs


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