Introduction to the bird species richness


In this study, bird species richness was observed over three hours throughout September and October in Cedar City, Utah. The study took place in the backyard of a home located in the suburbs of Cedar City. The yard contains many native plant species as well as a steady source of water in the form of a small pond. When a species was observed the birds’ characteristics, behavior, and sounds were recorded. The species were then identified by using a bird identification app (Audubon). Species richness of birds is commonly known to be affected by building developments that tend to replace native vegetation with man-made features (Germaine et al. 1998). Native plant species are essential to maintain bird species richness because they generally provide birds more protection and a better food supply than non-native plants. With how quickly cities are growing, landscaping in new buildings can greatly influence the number of birds in that area. Landscaping that contains native plant species often supports more insects which in turn will support more birds (Burghardt et al. 2009). Landscaping can provide wild organisms a small suitable habitat in rural and suburban areas. Landscaping can often provide organisms limiting factors such as an influx of water (Mckinney 2008). Being able to compare data with others in the class will be invaluable to this study. Areas with different habitats will be able to be compared, allowing one to see the effect native plant species can have on bird species richness. This will be important information because studies such as this can influence the type of landscaping chosen by companies and homeowners. With how quickly humans are expanding into wild areas, providing small areas that can help sustain species is essential to sustain healthy populations of wild organisms. We will be able to compare data collected by others performing the same study which will allow us to test how habitat composition affects avian species richness.

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Survey Site Selection

To test the hypotheses on the effects of urbanization on avian species richness, the Southern Utah University ecology lab collected data at 108 sites in Utah in the southwestern United States. Although normally, these sites would have been chosen systematically along a gradient to eliminate bias, due to the global COVID-19 pandemic and associated health recommendations to decrease unnecessary travel, we chose sites for their convenience and safety. This meant that there was randomness in site selection due to the instructor having no control over where students chose, but bias in site selection due to the sites being limited to areas that were convenient or appealing to students attending college in the USA.


Avian Species Richness Estimates

At personal survey sites, we estimated species richness by surveying for bird species for three hours total. Surveys varied in whether they were done in one three-hour or multiple shorter survey periods. During each survey, we recorded the survey start time, survey end time, temperature, estimated cloud cover, and wind speed, to control for potential variation in counting caused by these variables. We then took notes on identifying features of each bird species that we saw and were able to identify during the survey period, including notes on the size, shape, habitat, behavior, sounds, and field markings. When possible, we also took pictures and/or videos. Avian species richness was defined as the total number of species observed in three hours. This was a standardized sample, as species accumulation curves revealed that the true species richness value at each site was likely much higher. Therefore, all richness values should be compared within the context of this three-hour window, with the assumption that sites that actually have higher species richness values will also have higher counts in the three-hour survey window.


Survey Independent Variables

We collected several independent variables at personal survey sites that we hypothesized would affect avian species richness. First, we determined whether the site would be characterized as “urban,” “suburban,” or “rural” based on gestalt understanding of these terms. Next, we characterized the site as “xeric,” “mesic,” or “mixed.” Next, we did a limited invasive plant species survey, noting if there was cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), English ivy (Hedera helix), field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis), Scotch thistle (Onopordum acanthium), myrtle spurge (Euphorbia myrsinites), or Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia) within the study site. Percentage invasive species was calculated as the percentage of these seven species present at the site. We next noted management techniques used at the site, particularly mowing, pesticide application for management of insects, herbicide application for management of weeds, irrigation (sprinkler system, manual watering, large-scale irrigation, etc.). Percentage of area that contains native plants (whether planted or natural) was estimated overall by the surveyor. To assess supplemental bird feeding, we noted whether bird feeders, bird baths, or pet/livestock food were available at the site. Domesticated animals were noted, too, including the presence of outdoor dogs, indoor dogs, outdoor cats. To measure habitat structure related to trees, we also measured the DBH of the three nearest trees found within the study site, and then measured the distance to the farthest of the trees to use as a radius to calculate the area of the circular plot that contained the three trees. We then divided the number of trees by this plot area to calculate the estimated tree density.


Landscape-Level Independent Variables

For each of the 44 sites, we collected landscape-level variables using the ArcGIS Online program. Specifically, we created a buffer of 0.5 km around each site and reported the number of habitat types and dominant habitat type within that buffer using the World Land Cover 30m BaseVue 2013 basemap. We used the 2019 USA Population Density layer to estimate the population size and total number of housing units within each 0.5 km buffer. To determine the distance to the nearest road, we used the Utah Roads layer published by the Utah Automated Geographic Reference Center, and used the “Find nearest” proximity tool to measure the straight-line distance between the survey location and the nearest road. To determine the distance to nearest water, we used the same technique, but measured the straight-line distance to water as mapped in the National Wetlands Inventory-Wetlands Map Service. To determine transportation noise, we used the National Transportation Noise Map ( ) and reported the noise in maximal dB at each study site.



To statistically test each hypothesis, we used ANOVA tests for hypotheses for which the independent variables were categorical, and Pearson’s correlations for hypotheses in which the independent variables were continuous. All statistics were performed in R 4.0.3




There was no significant correlation between the estimated mean percent native species (48.3 土 34.1 %) and mean species richness (4.3 士 2.5 species; r=0.16, n=100, p=0.11, figure 1)

There was no significant correlation between the mean percent invasive species (0.2 土 0.2 %) and mean species richness (4.2 土 2.4 species; r=0.04, n=108, p=0.7, figure 2)

There was no significant correlation between mesic water availability (4.2 土 2.3), mixed water availability (4.4 土 2.4), xeric water availability (3.8 土 2.8; F=0.3, n=105, p=0.7, figure 3) on species richness.



Figure 1: There is no significant correlation between percent native vegetation and avian species richness as shown in the graph.


Figure 2: There is no significant correlation between percent invasive species vegetation on avian species richness at a site.



figure 3: There is no significant correlation between mesic, mixed, and xeric habitat water availability on species richness.




Our overall hypothesis that habitat composition affects bird species richness was not supported because our three sub hypotheses were not supported. The hypothesis that the percent native vegetation in a survey site would affect avian species richness was not supported. The amount of native vegetation in a site did not significantly affect bird species richness. There are a few possible explanations for this. It is often difficult to observe a habitat that has only native vegetation in urban or suburban areas. These areas such as household vegetation and recreation areas in cities are known to increase bird diversity in suburban and urban landscapes (Smith et al. 2014) As birds become more adapted to their environment, they learn to survive with the resources available to them. Birds tend to focus more on the vegetation structure rather than native or non-native vegetation (Fleishman et al. 2003). The structure of the vegetation is important to bird richness because the structure is what provides the birds with protection and nesting habitats. Native vegetation can also be classified as small shrubs and grasses that in some cases don’t provide any benefits to birds. There are also instances when native plant species and non-native species are in the same habitat, and the non-native species can deter birds. This is the same reason the hypothesis, percent invasive vegetation species affects bird species richness was not supported. Invasive species have become more prominent in urban and suburban environments and birds have learned to adapt to these changes. Invasive species can positively affect bird species by providing them with additional food sources and protection from predators. Invasive species can be harmful to other plants around them but they can also benefit birds. The hypothesis that water availability affects bird species richness was also not supported. This is most likely due to the amount of water in the area. Cedar City is located in a desert environment, but most yards and parks have irrigation systems that provide water. The birds don’t have to pool around one water source because there are many in and around Cedar City. Bird species richness is often negatively associated with proximity to water sources in urban areas (Shwartz et al. 2008). One benefit of urbanization for bird species is the additional water resources. Urbanization brings irrigation, reservoirs, and other additional water sources for birds to benefit from. The abundance of water sources in urban and suburban areas also provides other benefits for birds. Water provides more vegetation and more insects in the habitat, these additional food sources benefit birds.

In future studies, the amount of time surveying birds should be increased. The three hours of surveying was just not enough to accurately define the species richness in the area. To better assess how habitat composition affects bird species richness, survey sites should contain only native plant species or invasive species. The richness at the sites could then be compared to one another and would give a better visual about how and if native or invasive plant species affect bird species richness. Another way to assess how water availability affects bird species richness would be to look at how much water is used or contained in a field site. Our survey looked at the proximity to water and found no significant difference in how it affects bird species richness. With how much water is contained within suburban and urban environments, I think a better way to see how water affects bird richness would be to examine how much water is used within a field site or how much water it contains. This could show if birds are more attracted to areas that contain more water.





Burghardt, K. T., Tallamy, D. W., & Gregory Shriver, W. (2009). Impact of native plants on bird and butterfly biodiversity in suburban landscapes. Conservation biology23(1), 219-224.


Fleishman, E., McDonal, N., Nally, R. M., Murphy, D. D., Walters, J., & Floyd, T. (2003). Effects of floristics, physiognomy and non‐native vegetation on riparian bird communities in a Mojave Desert watershed. Journal of Animal Ecology72(3), 484-490.



Germaine, S. S., Rosenstock, S. S., Schweinsburg, R. E., & Richardson, W. S. (1998). Relationships among breeding birds, habitat, and residential development in Greater Tucson, Arizona. Ecological applications8(3), 680-691.


McKinney, M. L. (2008). Effects of urbanization on species richness: a review of plants and animals. Urban ecosystems11(2), 161-176.


R Core Team. 2019. R: A language and environment for statistical computing. R Foundation for Statistical Computing, Vienna, Austria. URL


Shwartz, A., Shirley, S., & Kark, S. (2008). How do habitat variability and management regime shape the spatial heterogeneity of birds within a large Mediterranean urban park?. Landscape and Urban Planning84(3-4), 219-229.

Smith, A. C., Francis, C. M., & Fahrig, L. (2014). Similar effects of residential and non-residential vegetation on bird diversity in suburban neighbourhoods. Urban Ecosystems17(1), 27-44.

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