As in much of the world, Australia’s birds have suffered greatly from habitat loss, feral predators and direct exploitation. Less universal have been the declines caused by post-colonial changes in fire regime after 40 000 years of Indigenous fire management. Climate change and a disengagement by Australians from nature loom as threats for the future. However, Australia is a country of climatic extremes and many birds are well-adapted to stressful conditions. Given adequate investment, all the major classes of threat have potential solutions, with particular success in recent decades in the removal of feral predators from islands and in reducing the by-catch from fishing. The biggest threat of all is possibly a failure to invest in conservation as modern lifestyles take people further and further away from the natural environment.
Australia’s birds are, like those in so much of the world, travelling poorly. Of the 1239 species and subspecies regularly occurring in Australia, 17% are Threatened or Near Threatened on the basis of the IUCN Red List Criteria (Garnett et al. 2011). This number has been increasing steadily (Szabo et al. 2012a) and, while originally it was taxa of Australia’s oceanic islands that were most likely to be threatened, taxa from the mainland are now starting to slip away (Szabo et al. 2012b). Sadly some of those most threatened are the most distinctive; birds at the end of long slender branches of the evolutionary tree whose closest relatives are long gone. Other species, however, are thriving under the conditions that have arisen over the past few centuries of intense development.
The Eurasian skylark (Alauda arvensis Linnaeus) is a small passerine that breeds across most of Eurasia from Western Europe and northwest Africa to eastern Russia, northern China, Japan and eastern Siberia (Figure 16.1). Its taxonomy is somewhat murky, A. arvensis is sometimes considered forming a superspecies with the Oriental skylark (A. gulgula Franklin) and some of its 13 subspecies are treated as species by some authors (del Hoyo et al. 2004). The subspecies are sometimes divided into ‘European Group’ and ‘Asian Group’, which I refer to as western and eastern skylarks in the remainder of this chapter. The western skylark (especially the subspecies A. a. arvensis) was the subject of most published studies as well as providing stock for introductions. Skylarks are mainly resident in the west of their range, but eastern populations are more migratory, moving further south in winter (Figure 16.1).
In the past, especially through the nineteenth century, the skylark’s range had presumably expanded, as large-scale habitat change, including increased deforestation and expansion of crops and pastures made it possible for the species to spread from diminishing natural steppe grasslands (Cramp 1988). Today it is one of the most common farmland birds in countries with extensive farmland, such as Germany (Toepfer and Stubbe 2001), France (Eraud and Boutin 2002), the Netherlands (Kragten et al. 2008), Sweden (Wretenberg et al. 2006), Finland (Suhonen et al. 1994), Poland (Sanderson et al. 2009) and the United Kingdom, where about 70% of the total skylark population occurs on farmland and 50% on arable land (Donald and Vickery 2000).
European colonisation of the Australian continent has caused immense changes in birds and their habitats during a timespan of just 220 years. A diverse and unique range of ecosystems and avifaunas is today in a state of flux as some species manage to exploit new and modified environments, while others fail to adapt, decline in abundance and become regionally uncommon or extinct (Barnard, 1925; Barnard, 1934; Blakers et al., 1984; Saunders and Curry, 1990; Recher, 1999; Barrett et al., 2003). In this chapter we consider the history of human occupation and scale of landscape change in Australia, the distinctively evolved life-history characteristics and habitat relationships of Australian birds, the type of contemporary landscape variation within Australia, and the nature of bird species and community responses to landscape change. This chapter is by no means an exhaustive review of the bird ecology literature in Australia, but rather provides an insight into the major landscape changes throughout Australia as a result of European colonisation, with a focus primarily on its impact on terrestrial birds. We examine potential reasons for differences and similarities in avifaunal responses to landscape change between Australia and Europe. We also highlight recent approaches to developing unifying conceptual frameworks for the complex range of species’ responses to landscape change within Australia, and outline their broad relevance to guiding efforts to conserve and restore bird populations and their habitats in Europe and elsewhere.
History of habitat change and human occupation: Australia vs. Europe
The history of anthropogenic landscape change in Australia differs substantially from that of Europe (Fig. 18.1). Australia is estimated to have been occupied by humans for as long as 60 000–70 000 years (Briscoe and Smith, 2002). By the late Holocene the native vegetation of large areas had been transformed as a result of ‘fire stick farming’, a technique used by Aboriginal people to burn vegetation to facilitate hunting, food gathering and movement through the landscape (Archer et al., 1991; Bowman, 2000). The practice of fire stick farming over thousands of years altered the composition of plants and animals and has been linked with megafaunal extinctions in the Pleistocene (Miller et al., 2005). By the time European ships were regularly sighted along the horizon (c. 1700s), most Australian vegetation and fauna were well adapted to fire.
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