Livestock grazing reinforces the competitive exclusion of small-bodied birds by large aggressive birds.
Grazing by domestic livestock is sometimes promoted as a management tool to benefit biodiversity. In many situations, however, it can produce negative outcomes. Here, we examine the impacts of recent and historic livestock grazing on bird communities in the semi-arid woodlands in eastern Australia, testing the notion that grazing removes the suppressive effect of structurally complex vegetation on miners, thereby reducing the richness and abundance of small birds. We used time- and area-limited searches of 108 sites varying in livestock grazing history and intensity, to explore the direct and indirect effects of grazing, habitat complexity and the abundance of aggressive, large-bodied birds on smaller-bodied birds using two-way analysis of variance and structural equation modelling. Small birds were less abundant and had lower richness in the presence of miners. Our structural equation models indicated that recent grazing had direct suppressive effects on the abundance of miners, and both richness and abundance of all but the largest-bodied bird groups. However, higher levels of historic livestock grazing reinforced the competitive exclusion of the six small-bodied bird groups (insectivores, nectarivores, declining woodland birds, small ground-foraging birds, all small birds and all non-miners) by aggressive miners via reductions in habitat complexity. Moreover, the strength of any suppressive effects on small birds or positive effects on large birds by miners increased with increasing miner abundance. Synthesis and applications. Our results highlight the importance of vegetation structural complexity, not only for providing habitat for woodland birds, but also as barriers to the invasion and competitive dominance of miners. Our findings suggest that management actions aimed at reducing tree and shrub density to promote open woodlands are likely to have significant negative consequences for the conservation of small woodland birds.