Wildfires and the expansion of threatened farmland birds: the ortolan bunting Emberiza hortulana in Mediterranean landscapes.
It has been argued that wildfires are one of the major agents involved in landscape transformation in many European regions and their impact is expected to increase in the near future. Despite the recognized impact of fire on wildlife at a local scale, we lack information on the species responses to fire at larger spatial scales. In this study, we used the ortolan bunting Emberiza hortulana to evaluate the potential effects of wildfires on open-habitat species distribution. In contrast to most European countries, this farmland species has experienced a consistent range expansion during the last decades in Catalonia (northeast Iberian peninsula). Distribution data of the species collected at different time periods allowed us to test the role of fires in determining range expansions at a regional scale, and to evaluate the importance of dispersal constraints on distribution changes. Analyses of distribution data from 1975-1983 and 1999-2002 showed a consistent expansion of the ortolan bunting in Catalonia. After correcting for differences in sampling effort, changes in distribution showed a strong spatial pattern with colonization and stability, but not local extinction, being clumped in space. Patterns of change were also strongly and significantly associated with the amount of shrubland burnt between the two time periods, since areas that experienced a larger impact of fires in terms of burnt area showed a much higher probability of maintaining species presence or of being colonized. Colonization events appeared to be more likely in areas affected by fire especially when surrounding areas had already been colonized by the species. Synthesis and applications. Overall, our results support the hypothesis that wildfires, especially those affecting open woodlands or shrubby areas, play a critical role in the ecology of the ortolan bunting and have contributed to the recent expansion of the species in Catalonia. Furthermore, we have shown that colonization appears to be limited, not only by the availability of new burnt habitat but also by specific dispersal constraints. We suggest that, for several European threatened species associated with open habitats, burnt areas may partially compensate for the widespread loss and deterioration of farmland habitat, opening new management opportunities for their conservation.