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An experimental study of how variation in deer density affects vegetation and songbird assemblages of recently harvested boreal forests

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Abstract:

Intense browsing by abundant large herbivores can threaten the ecological integrity of ecosystems by inducing modifications in the structure and composition of vegetation that trigger trophic cascades affecting plant and animal communities. We investigated the relationships between density of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus (Zimmermann, 1780)), forest succession after clear-cut, and songbird communities on Anticosti Island, Quebec, Canada. We hypothesized that lower deer densities would alter the trajectory of forest succession after clear-cutting and lead to a rapid recovery of habitat attributes favorable to songbirds associated with a dense complex shrub layer. Six years after establishing a controlled browsing experiment (0, 7.5, 15, and >27 deer·km–2) in recent clearcuts, reducing deer densities ≤7.5 deer·km–2 initiated the restoration of balsam fir (Abies balsamea (L.) Mill.) forests and increased the regeneration of paper birch (Betula papyrifera Marshall). Increasing birch ground cover from 10% to 20% increased songbird total abundance, species richness, and diversity by 17%, 39%, and 31%, respectively. Alder Flycatcher (Empidonax alnorum Brewster, 1895) was only present at ≤7.5 deer·km–2 and strongly associated with birch regeneration. The regeneration of browse-resistant plants such as white spruce (Picea glauca (Moench) Voss) in some areas at high deer density favored the maintenance of many shrub-dependent songbirds but also species usually associated with forest canopy. Active management of deer populations in Canadian harvested boreal forests will mitigate losses in vegetation and songbirds caused by over-browsing.

Keywords: Anticosti Island; Odocoileus virginianus; active management; cerf de Virginie; controlled-browsing experiment; expérience de broutement contrôlé; gestion active; over-browsing; surbroutement; white-tailed deer; île d’Anticosti

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1139/z2012-037

Affiliations: 1: Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) – Produits forestiers Anticosti Industrial Research Chair, Département de biologie, Université Laval, 1045, avenue de la Médecine, Québec, QC G1V 0A6, Canada; Centre d’études nordiques, Université Laval, 2405, rue de la Terrasse, Québec, QC G1V 0A6, Canada. 2: Centre d’Écologie Fonctionnelle et Évolutive (CEFE) – CNRS UMR 5175, 119, route de Mende, 34293, Montpellier CEDEX 5, France; Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) – Produits forestiers Anticosti Industrial Research Chair, Département de biologie, Université Laval, 1045, avenue de la Médecine, Québec, QC G1V 0A6, Canada. 3: Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) – Produits forestiers Anticosti Industrial Research Chair, Département de biologie, Université Laval, 1045, avenue de la Médecine, Québec, QC G1V 0A6, Canada; Centre d’études nordiques, Université Laval, 2405, rue de la Terrasse, Québec, QC G1V 0A6, Canada.

Publication date: June 10, 2012

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  • Published since 1929, this monthly journal reports on primary research contributed by respected international scientists in the broad field of zoology, including behaviour, biochemistry and physiology, developmental biology, ecology, genetics, morphology and ultrastructure, parasitology and pathology, and systematics and evolution. It also invites experts to submit review articles on topics of current interest.
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