Road exposure and the detectability of birds in field surveys

Author(s): Cooke, S.C., Balmford, A., Johnston, A., Massimino, D., Newson, S.E. & Donald, P.F.

Published: October 2019  

Journal: Ibis

Digital Identifier No. (DOI): 10.1111/ibi.12787

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Road ecology, the study of the impacts of roads and their traffic on wildlife, including birds, is a rapidly growing field, with research showing effects on local avian population densities up to several kilometres from a road. However, in most studies, the effects of roads on the detectability of birds by surveyors are not accounted for. This could be a significant source of error in estimates of the impacts of roads on birds and could also affect other studies of bird populations. Using road density, traffic volume and bird count data from across Great Britain, we assess the relationships between roads and detectability of a range of bird species. Of 51 species analysed, the detectability of 36 was significantly associated with road exposure, in most cases inversely. Across the range of road exposure recorded for each species, the mean positive change in detectability was 52% and the mean negative change was 36%, with the strongest negative associations found in smaller‐bodied species and those for which aural cues are more important in detection. These associations between road exposure and detectability could be caused by a reduction in surveyors’ abilities to hear birds or by changes in birds’ behaviour, making them harder or easier to detect. We suggest that future studies of the impacts of roads on populations of birds or other taxa, and other studies using survey data from road‐exposed areas, should account for the potential impacts of roads on detectability.

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