Sensitivity of breeding birds to the "human footprint" in western Great Lakes forest landscapes

Erin E. Gnass Giese, Robert W. Howe, Amy T. Wolf, Nicholas A. Miller, Nicholas G. Walton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


Breeding birds in forest ecosystems are generally diverse, habitat selective, and easily sampled. Because they must integrate environmental variables over space and time, local populations of forest birds (like other animal and plant taxa) may provide meaningful signals of local forest health or degradation. We evaluated 949 breeding bird surveys in areas ranging from degraded urban/suburban forest remnants to relatively pristine old growth forests in the western Laurentian Great Lakes region of North America. The "human footprint" across this landscape was represented by a one-dimensional numeric gradient derived from land cover variables, forest fragmentation metrics, and publicly available data on housing density and transportation corridors. We used an iterative, maximum likelihood approach to quantify species-specific responses to this human disturbance gradient. Many species showed significant directional responses, consistent with known life history attributes. Other species were most commonly detected at intermediate levels of anthropogenic disturbance, yielding unimodal responses. Relationships between the "human footprint" and occurrences of 38 bird species were illustrated by general Gaussian functions that represented both unidirectional and unimodal patterns. These biotic response (BR) functions were combined into a bird-based index of ecological condition (IEC) ranging from 0 (maximally degraded) to 10 (minimally degraded). We described a successful application of the IEC method at the Wild Rivers Legacy Forest (WRLF), a >260 km2 conservation landscape in northeastern Wisconsin, USA, managed primarily under a working forest conservation easement established in 2006. In general, areas within the WRLF yielded high IEC values (7.0-9.0), but nearby forest areas not under the conservation easement were characterized by significantly lower IEC values based on breeding bird assemblages.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number90
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 1 2015

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015 Gnass Giese et al.


  • Bird assemblage
  • Disturbance gradient
  • Ecological indicator
  • Forestry management
  • Northern mesic forest
  • Western Great Lakes (USA)


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