Red‐backed fairywrens adjust habitat use in response to dry season fires


Fire disturbance in tropical savannas is integral to maintaining habitat heterogeneity and biodiversity, but its impact on avian species is highly variable. Savannas in northern Australia have recently been invaded by gamba grass (Andropogon gayanus), a perennial tussock grass that fuels late season fires at eight times the intensity of native vegetation. As gamba grass rapidly outcompetes native species and promotes more frequent and intense fires, it greatly decreases landscape heterogeneity and alters the effect of fire in tropical savannas. To investigate how a small passerine, the red‐backed fairywren (Malurus melanocephalus), responds to fire disturbance and gamba grass cover, we studied their fine‐scale habitat use throughout the dry season before and after a high intensity fire. We used two spatially distinct approaches, radio‐telemetry and a transect‐based population census, to quantify fairywren habitat use at the group and population level, respectively. Radio‐telemetry and transect surveys revealed no direct mortality associated with the severe bushfire during the middle of the study season, suggesting fairywrens are resilient in the short‐term to fire disturbance. Our results indicate that fairywrens are largely flexible in their habitat use – instead of relocating after fire, they re‐centre their home range around the most photosynthetically productive habitats, dominated by saplings. While we found substantial variation in habitat use among social groups, red‐backed fairywren groups generally avoided dense habitat areas dominated by mature gamba grass. We conclude that red‐backed fairywrens are resilient to fire and flexible in their habitat use in the short‐term; however, in the long‐term, gamba grass may pose a threat to population viability. The importance of flexible behavioural strategies in tropical passerines will increase as fire regimes are exacerbated by invasive species and climate change.

In Austral Ecology
Nathalie Sommer
Nathalie Sommer
PhD Candidate