Riparian vegetation has disproportionate benefits for landscape-scale conservation of woodland birds in highly modified environments.
Identifying landscape patterns that allow native fauna to coexist with human land use is a global challenge. Riparian vegetation often persists in anthropogenic environments as strips of natural or semi-natural vegetation that provide habitat for many terrestrial species. Its relative contribution to landscape-scale conservation is likely to change as environments become increasingly modified. We used a 'whole of landscape' approach to test the hypothesis that riparian vegetation offers disproportionate benefits, relative to non-riparian vegetation, for the conservation of woodland birds in highly modified agricultural landscapes. We selected 24 landscapes, each 100 km2, along a gradient of landscape change represented by decreasing cover of native vegetation (from 60% to <2%), in an agricultural region in SE Australia. Bird species were systematically surveyed at three riparian and seven non-riparian sites in wooded vegetation in each landscape. Riparian sites supported a greater richness of woodland-dependent species, a group of conservation concern, than did non-riparian sites. The composition of assemblages also differed between site types. At the landscape scale, the pooled richness of bird assemblages at riparian and non-riparian sites, respectively, decreased with overall loss of tree cover despite constant sampling effort. Within landscapes, the β-diversity of woodland species among non-riparian sites increased (composition became less similar) as landscape tree cover declined. In contrast, riparian assemblages were relatively stable with no change in β-diversity. Importantly, as landscape tree cover declined, the proportion of woodland species uniquely present at riparian sites increased and made a greater contribution to overall landscape diversity. Synthesis and applications. Landscape-scale richness of woodland species declines as landscape tree cover is lost. In highly depleted landscapes, riparian vegetation retains a relatively rich, stable assemblage compared with that in heterogeneous remnants of non-riparian vegetation and consequently contributes disproportionately to landscape-scale diversity. These observations, together with the diverse benefits of riparian vegetation for aquatic ecosystems, mean that protection and restoration of riparian vegetation is a high priority in anthropogenic environments. Importantly, such actions are directly amenable to individual land managers, and the benefits will accumulate to enhance the persistence and conservation of species at landscape and regional scales.