Effects of controlled fire and livestock grazing on bird communities in East African Savannas

Nathan C. Gregory, Ryan L. Sensenig, David S. Wilcove

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40 Scopus citations


In East Africa fire and grazing by wild and domestic ungulates maintain savannas, and pastoralists historically set fires and herded livestock through the use of temporary corrals called bomas. In recent decades traditional pastoral practices have declined, and this may be affecting biodiversity. We investigated the effects of prescribed fires and bomas on savanna bird communities in East Africa during the first and second dry seasons of the year (respectively before and after the rains that mark the onset of breeding for most birds). We compared abundance, richness, and community composition on 9-ha burned plots, recently abandoned bomas, and control plots in the undisturbed matrix habitat over a 3-year period. Generally, recently burned areas and abandoned bomas attracted greater densities of birds and had different community assemblages than the surrounding matrix. The effects of disturbances were influenced by interactions between primary productivity, represented by the normalized difference vegetation index, and time. Bird densities were highest and a greater proportion of species was observed on burned plots in the months following the fires. Drought conditions equalized bird densities across treatments within 1 year, and individuals from a greater proportion of species were more commonly observed on abandoned bomas. Yearly fluctuations in abundance were less pronounced on bomas than on burns, which indicate that although fire may benefit birds in the short term, bomas may have a more-lasting positive effect and provide resources during droughts. Several Palearctic migrants were attracted to burned plots regardless of rainfall, which indicates continued fire suppression may threaten their already-declining populations. Most notably, the paucity of birds observed on the controls suggests that the current structure of the matrix developed as a result of fire suppression. Traditional pastoralism appears critical to the maintenance of avian diversity in these savannas.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1606-1616
Number of pages11
JournalConservation Biology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2010

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation
  • Ecology


  • Birds
  • Bomas
  • Disturbance
  • East Africa
  • Fire
  • Grazing
  • Pastoralism
  • Savannas


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