Cavity excavation and enlargement as mechanisms for indirect interactions in an avian community
Direct and indirect species interactions within ecological communities may play a strong role in influencing or maintaining community structure. Complex community interactions pose a major challenge to predicting ecosystem responses to environmental change because predictive frameworks require identification of mechanisms by which community interactions arise. Cavity-nesting communities are well suited for mechanistic studies of species interactions because cavity nesters interact through the creation of and competition for cavity-nest sites. In this study, we use a cavity-nest web as a predictive framework for identifying potential indirect species interactions within a cavity-nesting community. From 2002 to 2005, we monitored abundance and nests of cavity-nesting birds in the longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) ecosystem. Using a nest-web approach, we identified a potential indirect interaction between the Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Picoides borealis) and large secondary cavity nesters, mediated by the Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus). We used structural equation modeling to test a path model of this interaction, using cavity excavation and enlargement as mechanisms which drive the relationship between these species. Through experimental manipulation of cavity availability, we blocked links described in our model, confirming cavity creation and enlargement as processes that influence community structure. We found that a single-species management technique could potentially disrupt this indirect relationship by affecting Northern Flicker cavity-excavation behavior. This study is the first demonstration of how experimental cavity manipulation can be used to test inferred processes derived from a nest web and highlights the need to understand how mechanisms underlying species interactions can complicate ecosystem responses to environmental change.