Active restoration fosters better recovery of tropical rainforest birds than natural regeneration in degraded forest fragments.
Ecological restoration has emerged as a key strategy for conserving tropical forests and habitat specialists, and monitoring faunal recovery using indicator taxa like birds can help assess restoration success. Few studies have examined, however, whether active restoration (AR) achieves better recovery of bird communities than natural regeneration, or how bird recovery relates to habitat affiliations of species in the community. In rainforests restored over the past two decades in a fragmented landscape (Western Ghats, India), we examined whether bird species richness and community composition recovery in 23 actively restored (AR) sites were significantly better than recovery in paired naturally regenerating (NR) sites, relative to 23 undisturbed benchmark (BM) rainforests. We measured eight habitat variables and tested whether bird recovery tracked habitat recovery, whether rainforest and open-country birds showed contrasting patterns, and assessed species-level responses to restoration. We recorded 92 bird species in 460 point-count surveys. Rainforest bird species richness was highest in BM, intermediate in AR and lowest in NR. Contrastingly, open-country bird species richness was least in BM, intermediate in AR and highest in NR. Bird community composition varied significantly across treatment types with composition in AR in transition from NR to BM. Bird community dissimilarity between sites was positively related to dissimilarity in habitat structure and floristics, and geographical distance between sites. Variance partitioning indicated that structural and floristic dissimilarity explained 90% of the variation in community composition. Indicator species analysis revealed significant associations of 34 species with one or more treatment types. Species associated with BM and AR treatment types were all rainforest species, while only 38% of species associated with AR and NR treatment types were rainforest species. Synthesis and applications. We show that active restoration (AR) of degraded fragments benefits rainforest birds and reduces the infiltration of open-country birds, and highlight the importance of considering rainforest and open-country species separately. In human-modified tropical rainforest landscapes, AR of degraded fragments fosters partial recovery and complements protection of mature forests for bird conservation.