Science Story

How people manage their yards can help, or not help, native wildlife

April 9th, 2019 at 3:31PM
A picture of a desert bird, the verdin, from the Phoenix, Arizona area.
Researchers found a decline in the
abundance of desert birds,
including the verdin (pictured), in the Phoenix, AZ, region.

When you add it up, backyards make up the biggest chunk of green space found in cities. For urban ecologists, the persistent question is whether this habitat can sustain native species.

Susannah Lerman, a research ecologist with the USDA Forest Service’s Northern Research Station, revisited research she conducted as part of her Ph.D. dissertation 13 years ago to discover whether trends she found in the number of bird species and the abundance of birds in Phoenix, Ariz., were holding true and, if so, what that means for native species in an increasingly urban world.

Working with Paige Warren, a University of Massachusetts – Amherst professor and her Ph.D. advisor, and Arizona State University colleagues Riley Andrade, Kelli Larson and Heather Bateman, Lerman and the team found that within the Central Arizona–Phoenix Long-Term Ecological Research  (https://sustainability.asu.edu/caplter/) site, overall bird abundance had dropped in Phoenix, however trends observed in 2006-2007 were holding steady: backyards landscaped with native plants drew native birds, and non-native landscaping attracted non-native birds.

A picture of residential property that used native plants, like cactus around the yard, in landscaping to benefit desert bird species.
In residential property, using native plants
in landscapingbenefits desert bird species. Photo Credit:Christofer Bang, AZ.

The study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, suggests that how people manage their back yard can make a difference to the success of wildlife species. Within the study area, 6 native species that are considered species of continental importance appear to be responding well to native landscaping. The curve-billed thrasher is declining across its range, but persisting in Phoenix neighborhoods, suggesting that desert landscaping can serve as viable habitat.

On the other hand, the study found that in the five years between Lerman’s dissertation and the new study, the invasive Eurasian collard dove has become the most abundant bird in Phoenix.

In their new study, Warren, Lerman and colleagues also looked at whether people even notice a neighborhood’s avian attributes. They found that within in the 39-neighborhood study area, residents reported greater satisfaction with their neighborhood when native desert species were present, and less satisfaction in neighborhoods dominated by non-native birds.

The study, “The more things change: species losses detected in Phoenix despite stability in bird-socioeconomic relationships,” is available online at: https://www.nrs.fs.fed.us/pubs/57722