Indexed on: 12 Mar '20Published on: 05 Mar '20Published in: Ecology and Evolution
Habitat suitability models (HSM) based on remotely sensed data are useful tools in conservation work. However, they typically use species occurrence data rather than robust demographic variables, and their predictive power is rarely evaluated. These shortcomings can result in misleading guidance for conservation. Here, we develop and evaluate a HSM based on correlates of long-term breeding success of an open nest building boreal forest bird, the Siberian jay. In our study site in northern Sweden, nest failure of this permanent resident species is driven mainly by visually hunting corvids that are associated with human settlements. Parents rely on understory nesting cover as protection against these predators. Accordingly, our HSM includes a light detection and ranging (LiDAR) based metric of understory density around the nest and the distance of the nest to the closest human settlement to predict breeding success. It reveals that a high understory density 15-80 m around nests is associated with increased breeding success in territories close to settlements (<1.5 km). Farther away from human settlements breeding success is highest at nest sites with a more open understory providing a favorable warmer microclimate. We validated this HSM by comparing the predicted breeding success with landscape-wide census data on Siberian jay occurrence. The correlation between breeding success and occurrence was strong up to 40 km around the study site. However, the HSM appears to overestimate breeding success in regions with a milder climate and therefore higher corvid numbers. Our findings suggest that maintaining patches of small diameter trees may provide a cost-effective way to restore the breeding habitat for Siberian jays up to 1.5 km from human settlements. This distance is expected to increase in the warmer, southern, and coastal range of the Siberian jay where the presence of other corvids is to a lesser extent restricted to settlements. © 2020 The Authors. Ecology and Evolution published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.