Consequences of habitat change and resource selection specialization for population limitation in cavity-nesting birds.
Resource selection specialization may increase vulnerability of populations to environmental change. One environmental change that may negatively impact some populations is the broad decline of quaking aspen Populus tremuloides, a preferred nest tree of cavity-nesting organisms who are commonly limited by nest-site availability. However, the long-term consequences of this habitat change for cavity-nesting bird populations are poorly studied. I counted densities of woody plants and eight cavity-nesting bird species over 29 years in 15 high-elevation riparian drainages in Arizona, USA. I also studied nest-tree use and specialization over time based on 4946 nests across species. Aspen suffered a severe decline in availability over time, while understorey woody plants and canopy deciduous trees also declined. The decline of plants resulted from increased elk Cervus canadensis browsing linked to declining snowfall. Woodpeckers exhibited very high specialization (>95% of nests) on aspen for nesting, and densities of all six species declined with aspen over time. Mountain chickadees Poecile gambeli and house wrens Troglodytes aedon exhibited increasingly less specialization on aspen. Chickadees strongly increased in density over time, despite a relatively high specialization on aspen. House wren densities declined moderately over time, but nest-box addition experiments demonstrated that nest-site availability was not limiting their population. House wren densities increased with understorey vegetation recovery in elk exclosures via increased generality of nest-site use, demonstrating that the decline in understorey vegetation on the broader landscape was the cause of their population decline. Synthesis and applications. Management should target species that specialize in resource selection on a declining resource. Species with greater resource selection generalization can reduce population impacts of environmental change. Resource generalization can allow a species like the wren to take advantage of habitat refuges, such as those provided by the elk exclosures. Yet, resource generalization cannot offset the negative impacts of broad-scale declines in habitat quality on the landscape, as demonstrated by the general decline of wrens. Ultimately, aspen is an important habitat for biodiversity, and land management programmes that protect and aid recovery of aspen habitats may be critical.