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Changes in potential habitat of 147 North American breeding bird species in response to redistribution of trees and climate following predicted climate change

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Mounting evidence shows that organisms have already begun to respond to global climate change. Advances in our knowledge of how climate shapes species distributional patterns has helped us better understand the response of birds to climate change. However, the distribution of birds across the landscape is also driven by biotic and abiotic components, including habitat characteristics. We therefore developed statistical models of 147 bird species distributions in the eastern United States, using climate, elevation, and the distributions of 39 tree species to predict contemporary bird distributions. We used randomForest, a robust regression‐based decision tree ensemble method to predict contemporary bird distributions. These models were then projected onto three models of climate change under high and low emission scenarios for both climate and the projected change in suitable habitat for the 39 tree species. The resulting bird species models indicated that breeding habitat will decrease by at least 10% for 61–79 species (depending on model and emissions scenario) and increase by at least 10% for 38–52 species in the eastern United States. Alternatively, running the species models using only climate/elevation (omitting tree species), we found that the predictive power of these models was significantly reduced (p<0.001). When these climate/elevation‐only models were projected onto the climate change scenarios, the change in suitable habitat was more extreme in 60% of the species. In the end, the strong associations with vegetation tempers a climate/elevation‐only response to climate change and indicates that refugia of suitable habitat may persist for these bird species in the eastern US, even after the redistribution of tree species. These results suggest the importance of interacting biotic processes and that further fine‐scale research exploring how climate change may disrupt species specific requirements is needed.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: December 1, 2011

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