Do Birds Prefer Suburbia?

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Do Birds Prefer Suburbia?

A new book has led to some confusion as to whether suburbs are the best bird habitat. Here are 7 reasons why nature still trumps sprawl. 

By Kenn Kaufman
Published: 08/04/2014

Are there birds in suburbia? Sure. Every serious birder has noticed that. On an Audubon Christmas Bird Count, for example, when things get slow out in the woods, we often head into the suburbs to check out the gardens and parks. There, the varied habitat often produces bird species that we didn't find out "in the wild." 

John Marzluff, a professor of wildlife science at the University of Washington, has done more than just notice. He has documented this diversity of suburban birds through careful studies, and has authored several papers on the subject. He even coined a term for bird-rich suburbs: "Subirdia." His book Welcome to Subirdia, slated for publication in September, will bring his ideas to a wider audience. 

Even before publication, Marzluff's book is drawing attention. On July 28, science writer Robert Krulwich wrote about it on the NPR blog: "Where The Birds Are Is Not Where You'd Think." Krulwich was clearly intrigued by the comparison of bird diversity in city centers, suburban areas, and wild forests, and the fact that "the suburbs, shockingly, win," as he writes. Further on, he concludes, "wild and wide open spaces, apparently, offer no special advantages."

Within hours of Krulwich's post's appearance, social media lit up with birders questioning it. Did the NPR piece accurately reflect the focus of the research? Was the study actually suggesting that suburban sprawl is good for birdlife? 

There's no faulting the science behind Marzluff's findings. He and his students have more than a decade of data from an extensive series of points around Seattle, and the pattern is clear: The variety of birdlife is lowest in the city center, increases to a maximum in certain suburban areas, and then declines somewhat toward the undisturbed forest. More kinds of birds live in those suburbs than in the natural habitat. 

So suburbs are the best bird habitats, and we can forget about trying to protect natural ecosystems, right? Wrong. That's not what the research really suggests. After speaking with Marzluff and taking an early look at the book, I can confirm the situation is not so simple. 

Here are seven reasons why natural habitats are still better for birds than suburbs:

1. Seattle is special. The pattern of more bird species in the suburbs than in nearby wild areas has been documented, to some extent, around several temperate-zone cities. But it may be a lot more noticeable around Seattle, where much of the surrounding land is covered with unbroken coniferous forest--often a very slow birding habitat. 

2. Not all suburbs are created equal. Square miles of concrete and mowed lawns support few bird species. Marzluff found peak bird diversity in suburbs that had at least 30 percent natural cover: parks, streams, greenbelts, undeveloped lots holding patches of the original native forest. With less native cover, diversity levels dropped.

3. Suburbs mimic aspects of the best natural habitats. The most bird-rich suburbs had a wide variety of native and ornamental plantings, creating a high diversity of plant life, as well as bird feeders, bird houses, and artificial ponds. In the wild, we often find the most bird species in "edge" situations, where one habitat meets another. Suburban habitat is like an endless series of edges. So there's potential for more different birds to find a niche there.

4. Some birds have adapted to urban life, but others can't. Long-term studies in London, for example, have shown that the diversity of birds living in certain parks has increased. But some species, termed "avoiders," seem unable to adapt to life in developed areas. In North America, forest birds such as Wood Thrush, Ovenbird, and Red-eyed Vireo are in this category. Many bird species will survive only if they have sufficient sanctuaries of natural habitat. 

5.Tropical regions still dominate. The pattern of highest diversity in the suburbs breaks down completely in tropical regions. No suburban habitat can approach the number of bird species living in tropical forest. 

6. Local diversity isn't everything. It would be wrong to measure a bird habitat's value only by the number of species living there. Some unique habitats support rare and specialized birds that wouldn't survive anywhere else. For example, a marsh hosting Yellow Rails and Le Conte's Sparrows is more significant, from a conservation standpoint, than a suburban neighborhood filled with starlings and robins, even if the latter might have more total species. 

7. Suburbs aren't as good for other wildlife. As detailed in a chapter in Marzluff's forthcoming book, other life forms beyond birds don't necessarily fare so well in the suburbs. Many native mammals, reptiles, and amphibians disappear from developed areas, and fish and other aquatic creatures often decline in urban and suburban streams. So the birds, mobile and adaptable, may not reflect what suburbia is doing to other creatures. 

So is suburbia--or, as the book title has it, subirdia--good or bad for birds? Well, it's complicated, and no simple answer will suffice. Surprising numbers of species thrive there. Many others don't, and probably never will. But an essential point, unmentioned in the NPR story but central to Marzluff's book, is that we humans can take a wide range of actions to make the suburbs more livable for birds, for other native wildlife, and ultimately for ourselves. This includes maintaining diverse natural cover within suburbs. 

While some aspects of the research may lend themselves to a gee-whiz story about birdy 'burbs, such a light treatment of the subject may mislead people into thinking their suburban sprawl is okay after all. In reality, Marzluff's book presents a more nuanced argument, and most importantly presents a potential action plan for how to make things better. 

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Author Profile

Kenn Kaufman

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine


I like your 7 reasons why

I like your 7 reasons why natural habitats are better for birds that “subirdia,” and yet, as you say, we can make suburbs more livable for them. A paper published in 2014 based on a study of suburbia in Prague, Czech Republic, found species-diverse and older trees, coniferous and deciduous, are important to bird numbers and diversity. Even urban riparian remnants, when preserved with high-quality natural vegetation, made a difference.
There are an estimated 15,500 tree-lined golf courses with ponds and wetlands in the U.S. Most of them are public courses. One country club in North Carolina – Pinehurst -- is home to 9 families of endangered Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. That country club now lets its Longleaf Pines grow to older ages, which the woodpeckers (and other birds) love.
In a 2002-2003 survey of 100 golf courses in Michigan, 26 that had nesting Red-headed Woodpecker nests had something that any suburb could adopt to be more livable for birds: The courses with nesting woodpeckers had older trees, more standing dead trees and more dead limbs on live trees than the golf courses that didn’t have woodpecker nests. I know that many Audubon members already work for landscape management techniques that help birds. Suburban landowners can learn from these folks. This story in Audubon helps to remind all of us of actions that make our suburbs more livable for birds (and the people who love them).
If your trees aren’t old enough to have a hollow for Screech Owls, ornithologist Fred Gehlbach found that Eastern Screech Owls do very well in Waco, Texas suburbs, especially when the boxes are made and positioned properly.
I’m personally torn about supplemental feeding. It obviously helps birds, especially during times of food scarcity, but there can be drawbacks at other times. As long as we’re guided to do what’s best for the long-term survival of the most bird species, nuanced and compassionate approaches seem most appropriate.

SOME birds do well in the

SOME birds do well in the burbs and some do not- this is what the author is saying. Some birds need marshlands/wetlands to survive, they can't get that in suburbia. Most other forms of wildlife can't survive in the burbs. It is still important to preserve and maintain the natural habitat of all creatures, not just continue the urban concrete sprawl. The suburban neighborhoods must continue to have parks with plenty of trees, shrubs, and native plants.. There should be water features around for the birds to use also. I think people in suburbia do a good job of supplying food and habitats for birds and small forms of wildlife. I believe if the people of suburbia continue to do their part, and the people out in the open, country spaces can continue to preserve and protect the woodlands and marshland areas, we will all do our part in helping to maintain ALL forms of wildlife for years to come in ALL areas of our great country.

Jehovah was right, man should

Jehovah was right, man should be spread out abroad, not crammed together into cities and towns, it was nimrod who decided cities are better (not for the benefit of man ) so he could get better control over others, not because he cared about the peoples welfare he was a might hunter in oppistion to Jehovah who commanded man to spread not concentrate. He was a hunter of people for sport/conquest. kind of like today, anyway the birds around me are wonderful, I see so many varieties of hawks, and I hear owls, occasionally get a glimpse and finches of every kind wrens, some gulls, lots of different types of heron just seen one today flying over (little blue heron maybe?) possibly one of the night herons? blue jays, blue birds and migrants like indigo bunting. rose breasted grosbeak, coyotes, foxes, raccoons ground hogs galore, snakes, froggies, lots of them. thank goodness we don't have bears and wolves, they would make life unbearable, lol, sorta pun intended some not. nice thing about habitate variety in suburbs, people plant a lot of animal friendly plants (I know I do) and I feed the birds which increases the number of birds breeding (right now two house wrens has nest, a hummingbird has one in my trumpet vine) cardinals and bluejays had babies and even brought them to my feeders, woodpeckers, I even see a pilated woodpecker occasionally or I at least hear them. three types of thrushes, robins veery, wood thrush, lots of swallows and swifts, (one thing I miss seeing is the night hawks that used to fly overhead and I could hear them) I miss the number of bats I used to see, when I lived in the Cuyahoga falls city I used to see these bats all the time, large ones in fact. they would swoop around my head. also I noticed the lack of june bugs we used to get every year. whatever happened to june bugs the ones with the pinchers? I live on the edge of suburbs, but a lot of people around here still have a lot of open space between them in some areas.

Very interesting &

Very interesting & informative. It never occurred to me that anyone would ever consider the 'burbs as an equal or better environ than natural habitat for birds or any wild species. Glad you're getting the message out & thanks for the referrals for further info!

Very interesting &

Very interesting & informative. It never occurred to me that anyone would ever consider the 'burbs as an equal or better environ than natural habitat for birds or any wild species. Glad you're getting the message out & thanks for the referrals for further info!

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