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BIRDING 101
LESSON 12: HABITAT SELECTION


Basically, birds require adequate food, water, and cover, all within easy travel distance. However, life is much more complex. In this lesson we will explore habitat selection, habitat preferences, and habitat requirements and gain some insight into what the human population does to destroy other species and what we can do to protect life on earth.

Throughout the millions of years of life on earth several extinction events have been documented by studying fossils. The most talked about is the extinction of most dinosaurs and many other species of animals and plants, caused by a meteor hitting the earth some 65 million years ago. However, the greatest known extinction event (over 90% of all species) occurred some 250 million years ago, the cause of which is still under debate. Some scholars and environmentalists speculate that another wave of extinction is now in progress. Even the knowledge that a rich diversity of life on earth is necessary in order for us humans to survive may not be enough to stop what we've set in motion but we should certainly try to stop it. Our best chance of stopping rapidly increasing extinction rates is to protect wildlife habitat diversity -- both quantity and quality.


The dictionary defines habitat as "the native environment of an animal or plant; the kind of place that is natural for the life and growth of an animal or plant." The thesaurus lists related words like abode, dwelling, residence, domicile, estate, environment and ecosystem. Habitat, in my mind, is the complex of physical factors required to provide food, water, and cover for a plant or animal. These factors must be in sufficient quantity and of sufficient quality to provide a never-ending supply of life's necessities. Birds complicate the definition of habitat by being very mobile. Many migrate thousands of miles between winter habitat and summer habitat. Most modern humans have adapted a different strategy. We transport water, food, light, heat, and cold to our permanent habitat (home). This requires the trust of an entire community of individuals as well as developed transportation corridors to assure that we as individuals are continually provided with the necessities of life. Most birds don't have the luxury of community or a network transporting the necessities to the individual.

To study the habitats of birds, we often rely on naming the bird habitats to help narrow the number of species included in each study. Habitats in Utah include:
  1. Alpine, including tundra and alpine transition;
  2. Coniferous Forest, including spruce-fir, lodgepole pine, douglas fir, and ponderosa pine;
  3. Deciduous forest, including mountain riparian, desert riparian, and aspen;
  4. Pygmy or Pinyon-Juniper Woodland;
  5. Shrub lands, including mountain sagebrush, mountain shrub (oak, maple and associated species), low elevation sagebrush, cold desert shrub, and joshua tree;
  6. Grasslands, including mountain meadows, arid grasslands, pastures, and lowland meadows;
  7. Wetlands including mudflats, saltflats, shoreline, marshes, rivers, streams, lakes and reservoirs;
  8. Barrens, including cliffs, bluffs, and dirt banks;
  9. Developed areas, including orchards, croplands, and building sites; urban areas, residential areas, city parks, commercial areas, and industrial areas.
An in-depth understanding of the complexities of habitats involved in each bird species growth and productivity would take several book length articles. This short summary is only intended to spark an interest in what conservationists can do to promote bird health and diversity. Also, by knowing what habitat a bird species selects, birders can better select bird watching areas to observe that species.

For a bird to prosper, reproduce and be available for ecosystem linkages and bird watching opportunities, all habitat requirements must be met. This includes winter habitat, migratory habitats and breeding habitat, all of sufficient quality to provide the necessities of life on a continuous basis. Birds, like humans, are adaptable. Once life requirements are met, preferences often change a bird's habitat selection.

Serious birders probably understand bird habitat preferences even if they rarely think about it. We just naturally go to where the most birds are. Generally this is the best quality habitat. Our weakness is not realizing that often when birds are concentrated they are concentrated because high quality habitat is very limited. We might observe many birds on our favorite marsh but not realize that populations are decreasing due to the destruction of other marshes. When populations are reduced below some viability level they become extinct.


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