The role of disturbance in the ecology and conservation of birds

J. D. Brawn, S. K. Robinson, F. R. Thompson

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Natural ecological disturbance creates habitats that are used by diverse groups of birds. In North America, these habitats or ecosystems include grasslands or prairies, shrublands, savannas, early successional forests, and floodplains. Whereas the extent of all natural habitats has diminished significantly owing to outright loss from agriculture and development, the suppression of disturbance by agents such as fire and flooding has led to further losses. Accordingly, the abundances of many bird species adapted to disturbance-mediated habitats have declined as well. In North America, these declines have been more severe and common than those of species associated with less frequently disturbed habitats such as mature or closed-canopy forests. Field studies consistently reveal the direct role of disturbance and successional processes in structuring avian habitats and communities. Conservation strategies involving the management of disturbance through some combination of flooding, application of fire, or the expression of wildfire, and use of certain types of silviculture have the potential to diversify avian habitats at the local, landscape, and regional scale. Many aspects of the disturbance ecology of birds require further research. Important questions involve associations between the intensity and frequency of disturbance and the viability of bird populations, the scale of disturbance with respect to the spatial structure of populations, and the role of natural vs. anthropogenic disturbance. The effects of disturbance and ensuing successional processes on birds are potentially long-term, and comprehensive monitoring is essential.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)251-276
Number of pages26
JournalAnnual Review of Ecology and Systematics
StatePublished - 2001
Externally publishedYes


  • Fire
  • Flood pulse
  • Habitat selection
  • Silviculture
  • Successional habitats

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology


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