Housing development beyond the urban fringe (i.e., exurban development) is one of the fastest growing forms of land-use change in the United States. Exurban development's attraction to natural and recreational amenities has raised concerns for conservation and represents a potential threat to wildlife. Although forest-dependent species have been found particularly sensitive to low housing densities, it is unclear how the spatial distribution of houses affects forest birds. The aim of this study was to assess forest bird responses to changes in the spatial pattern of exurban development and also to examine species responses when forest loss and forest fragmentation were considered. We evaluated landscape composition around North American Breeding Bird Survey stops between 1986 and 2009 by developing a compactness index to assess changes in the spatial pattern of exurban development over time. Compactness was defined as a measure of how clustered exurban development was in the area surrounding each survey stop at each time period considered. We used Threshold Indicator Taxa Analysis to detect the response of forest and forest-edge species in terms of occurrence and relative abundance along the compactness gradient at two spatial scales (400-m and 1-km radius buffer). Our results showed that most forest birds and some forest-edge species were positively associated with high levels of compactness at the larger spatial scale; the proportion of forest in the surrounding landscape also had a significant effect when forest loss and forest fragmentation were accounted for. In contrast, the spatial configuration of exurban development was an important predictor of occurrence and abundance for only a few species at the smaller spatial scale. The positive response of forest birds to compactness at the larger scale could represent a systematic trajectory of decline and could be highly detrimental to bird diversity if exurban growth continues and creates more compacted development.

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Copyright © 2016 PeerJ. This article first appeared in PeerJ (2016), 1-25.

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