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The diversity and abundance of North American bird assemblages fail to track changing productivity

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Plant biomass or productivity and the species richness of birds are associated across a range of spatial scales. Species-energy theory is generally assumed to explain these correlations. If true, bird richness should also track productivity temporally, and there should be spatial and temporal relationships between productivity and both bird abundance and bird richness. Using the summer normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) for 1982-2006 and the North American Breeding Bird Survey, we evaluated the response of avian richness and abundance to interannual changes in plant biomass or productivity. We found positive spatial relationships between richness and NDVI for all 25 years. Temporally, however, richness and NDVI were positively associated at 1579 survey sites and negatively associated at 1627 sites (mean r2 = 0.09). Further, total abundance and NDVI were unrelated spatially (r2 values spanning < 0.01 and 0.03) and weakly related temporally (mean r2 = 0.10). We found no evidence that productivity drives bird richness beyond the spatial correlations, and neither prediction arising from species-energy theory was confirmed. Spatial relationships between productivity and bird richness may thus be largely spurious, arising via covariance between plant biomass or productivity and vegetation structural complexity, and the latter may be driving bird communities. This is consistent with the MacArthurs' classic hypothesis that the vertical profile of foliage drives bird species diversity.

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