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Data from: Dynamics of bird assemblages in response to temporally and spatially variable resources in arid Australia

Cite this dataset

Schlesinger, Christine; Pascoe, Bruce (2022). Data from: Dynamics of bird assemblages in response to temporally and spatially variable resources in arid Australia [Dataset]. Dryad.


Bird assemblages in arid Australia are often characterised as being highly variable through time in response to boom and bust dynamics, although the importance of habitat in structuring assemblages at a local scale is also recognised. We use a novel approach to investigate the importance of rainfall variability in structuring bird assemblages in a resource-limited environment. Monthly bird surveys were conducted at ten plots for eight years at a botanical and zoological park in central Australia, including five irrigated plots within a fenced area and five natural plots outside. Irrigation – used to promote growth, flowering, and fruiting of plants – created an artificial resource-enhanced environment against which the response of birds to natural fluctuations in season and rainfall were compared. Species richness was generally maintained at a higher level in resource-enhanced plots during dry times but was higher in natural sites when rainfall was high, mainly due to increases in granivores and insectivores. Honeyeaters were consistently more abundant at irrigated sites. Rainfall was important in structuring bird assemblages at all plots; however, assemblages were more stable in irrigated plots and did not respond as dramatically to a period of very high rainfall. The comparative smoothing of fluctuations in the composition and abundance of birds in irrigated areas highlights the importance of primary productivity, normally tied to rainfall, in driving temporal change in arid-zone bird communities. There was also evidence that different plots in differing habitats supported distinct bird assemblages and that this spatial distinctiveness persisted irrespective of rainfall and determined, to some extent, the response to rainfall. Our study is one of few long-term studies of arid bird assemblages and highlights the importance of both long-term cycles of productivity driven by rain and season as well as site differences in the dynamics of arid zone bird communities. These insights are particularly valuable as climate change further exacerbates rainfall variability worldwide and initiatives to conserve avifauna in increasingly extreme environments may be required.


Data represent 30-minute area searches conducted simultaneously at 10 sites by citizen scientists. Surveys were conducted on 94 occasions between February 2004 and December 2011. Five sites were inside the Alice Springs Desert Park in an area that is irrigated and maintained as a botanical/zoological garden and five are outside the park in surrounding bushland and are natural (with no irrigation).

Usage notes

Labels are in the form Feb04I1 and represent the month of survey, year of survey, 'treatment' I/N, site number.

I = Irrigated sites

N = Natural sites (no irrigation)