Response of bird assemblages to the invasion and clearing of alien trees in the Western Cape, South Africa
Invasive alien plant species pose a major threat to global biodiversity by displacing native vegetation and transforming habitats. In South Africa, invasive alien plants have become a major component of most habitats. River systems are particularly affected owing to their dynamic nature and to anthropogenic activities. This has resulted in fynbos riparian scrub vegetation being replaced mainly by Acacia and Eucalyptus species, with serious ecological and economic impacts. The presence of alien trees along river banks leads to a reduction in native plant species richness and their high water consumption adds on to the existing water challenges in an already dry country. However, with regards to native fauna, it largely remains unknown both at small or large spatial scale, whether alien trees provide additional habitat which increases biodiversity, or if their presence leads to a reduction of native biodiversity. Impacts on water supply have led to large-scale clearing of invasive alien trees from riparian zones by the government through the Working for Water (WfW) programme. Monitoring and evaluation studies carried out after clearing are not well-rounded and mostly focus on vegetation response to clearing. Although some of these studies have reported successful restoration through passive methods, ecosystem recovery remains partial. There is evidently a lack of information regarding the response of animal communities to invasive alien plant clearing. Therefore, the main objective of this thesis was to investigate bird assemblage response to alien tree invasion and clearing. As a study system, I used the riparian area of the Berg River within the fynbos biome of the Cape Floristic Region, South Africa. The area historically consisted of renosterveld vegetation characterised by a matrix of shrubs and a high diversity of geophytes but relatively poor avifaunal diversity. This area is heavily affected by invasive alien trees and shrubs including Eucalyptus camaldulensis. I employed bird assemblages as an indicator, and used fixed-point bird counts to compare bird species richness and bird abundance between invaded and near-pristine habitats. Invasion by E. camaldulensis significantly reduced bird species richness and abundance. In particular, nectarivores and frugivores, which play important mutualistic roles in the fynbos, were reduced and unexpectedly; there were fewer raptors in invaded areas. I proceeded to carry out a space for time substitution, comparing plant and bird assemblages in invaded sites, near-pristine sites and in sites cleared in 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2014. A general increase in bird species richness and bird abundance with time since clearing exists with bird assemblages in cleared sites being similar to those in near-pristine sites. However, bird assemblages in cleared sites have not yet fully recovered a decade after clearing and four native plant species are still absent. In the third part of my thesis I assessed the impacts of invasive alien plants on bird assemblages at a larger spatial scale. The different responses shown by bird assemblages to invasive alien plant cover depended on the intensity of invasion, spatial scale and other land uses. From a bird’s eye view, this study supports the current clearing by WfW given the significant negative effects of invasive alien plants on bird diversity both at plot and large spatial scales. However, passive restoration is unsuccessful in restoring the full complement of plants and birds, therefore, active restoration should be considered. To limit the cost, I suggest a focused restoration approach of selected keystone tree species which can assist to establish a functional native ecosystem.
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