An index of ecological condition based on bird assemblages in Great Lakes coastal wetlands

Robert W. Howe, Ronald R. Regal, Jo Ann Hanowski, Gerald J Niemi, Nicholas P. Danz, Charles R. Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Scopus citations


We use bird distributions in non-forested coastal wetlands of the Great Lakes to illustrate a new, conceptually explicit method for developing biotic indicators. The procedure applies a probabilistic framework to derive an index that best "fits" an observed assemblage of species, based on preliminary information about species' responses to human environmental disturbance. Among 215 coastal wetland complexes across the U.S. portion of the Great Lakes, 23 bird species were particularly sensitive (positively or negatively) to a multivariate environmental disturbance gradient ranging from 0 (maximally disturbed) to 10 (minimally disturbed). Species like Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis) and Sedge Wren (Cistothorus platensis) showed strong negative relationships with human disturbance, while others like Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula), American Robin (Turdus migratorius), and European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris), showed strong positive relationships with disturbance. The functional shapes of these biotic responses were used to determine indices of ecological condition (IEC) for new sites. Values of IEC were highly correlated with the environmental gradient, but deviations from a 1:1 relationship reveal novel insights about local ecological conditions. For example, sites dominated by invasive plant species like Phragmites australis tended to yield IEC values that were lower than expected based on the environmental gradient. This framework for calculating ecological indicators holds significant potential for other applications because it is flexible, explicitly linked to a disturbance gradient, and easy to calculate once standardized biotic response functions are documented and made available for a region of interest.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)93-105
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Great Lakes Research
Issue numberSPEC. ISS. 3
StatePublished - 2007

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was supported by a grant from the U.S. EPA’s Science to Achieve Results Estuarine and Great Lakes program through funding to the Great Lakes Environmental Indicators project, U.S. EPA Agreement EPA/R-8286750 and a grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NAG5-11262). This document has not been subjected to U.S. EPA required peer and policy review and therefore does not necessarily reflect the views of the agency, and no official endorsement should be inferred. We are grateful for contributions by other scientists involved with the GLEI project, especially John Kelly, whose editorial comments helped improve the manuscript significantly. Other important contributions came from T. Hollenhorst, P. Wolter, V. Brady, T. Brown, J. Brazner, S. Price, D. Marks, and others, including more than 20 student field investigators. Important ideas underlying this analysis were communicated by J. Karr, D. Simberloff, P. Bertram, A. Tyre, and H. Possing- ham. This is contribution number 467 of the Center for Water and the Environment, Natural Resources Research Institute, University of Minnesota Duluth.


  • Coastal wetland
  • Environmental assessment
  • Indicator


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