Authors: John M. Tomecek, Brian L. Pierce, Kelly S. Reyna, Markus J. Peterson

Ecologists have long recognized the influence that environmental conditions have on abundance and range extent of animal species. We used the northern bobwhite (Colinus virginianus; hereafter bobwhite) as a model species for studying how microclimates serve as refuge against severe weather conditions. This species serves as an indicator or umbrella species for other sensitive ground-nesting, grassland obligate species. We conducted a mensurative field experiment in the rolling plains of Texas, USA, a semi-arid ecosystem on the southwestern periphery of bobwhite range, to determine whether native bunch grasses, apparently suitable for bobwhite nesting, could reduce ambient temperature below levels harmful for eggs. During the nesting season, we compared temperature and relative humidity readings at daily heat maxima (i.e., the 3 h during each day with highest temperatures) during the nesting season over the course of two years at 63 suitable nest sites paired with 63 random locations (n = 126) using two sensors at ∼10 and ∼60 cm above ground level. Mean temperature at nest height was 2.3% cooler at nest sites (35.99 °C ± 0.07 SE) compared to random locations (36.81 °C ± 0.07 SE); at ambient height, nest sites were slightly cooler (32.78 °C ± 0.06 SE) than random location (32.99 °C ± 0.06 SE). Mean relative humidity at nest sites was greater at nest height (34.53% ± 0.112 SE) and ambient height (36.22% ± 0.10 SE) compared to random locations at nest (33.35% ± 0.12 SE) and ambient height (35.75% ± 0.10 SE). Based on these results, cover at sites that appear visually suitable for nesting by bobwhites and other ground nesting birds provided adequate thermal refuge in the rolling plains by maintaining cooler, moister microclimates than surrounding non-nesting locations. Post-hoc analyses of data revealed that habitat conditions surrounding suitable nest sites strongly influenced thermal suitability of the substrate. Given that eggs of bobwhites and probably other species would experience lethal temperatures without these thermal refuges in the context of proper habitat condition, nesting vegetation is a critical component of niche space for bobwhites and other ground nesting birds in semi-arid regions. Many contemporary land uses, however, degrade or destroy bunch grasses and grassland systems, and thus decrease landscape inhabitability. Conservationists working with obligate grassland species that require bunch grasses in semi-arid regions should develop land management strategies that maximize the availability of these thermal refuges across space and time.

Suggested Citation

Tomecek JM, Pierce BL, Reyna KS, Peterson MJ. (2017) Inadequate thermal refuge constrains landscape habitability for a grassland bird species. PeerJ 5:e3709