Environmental Conservation

Alert distance as an alternative measure of bird tolerance to human disturbance: implications for park design

Esteban Fernández-Juricic a1c1, María Dolores Jimenez a2 and Elena Lucas a1
a1 Depto de Biología Animal I, Facultad de Biología, Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Madrid, E-28040, Spain
a2 Centro de Investigaciones Ambientales de la Comunidad de Madrid ‘Fernando Gonzalez Bernaldez’, C/ San Sebastián, 17, 28791 Soto del Real, Madrid, Spain


Animal tolerance to human approaches may be used to establish buffers for wildlife that can minimize the probability that animals will be disturbed by human activity. Alert distance (the distance between an animal and an approaching human at which point the animal begins to exhibit alert behaviours to the human) has been proposed as an indicator of tolerance mainly for waterbirds; however, little is known about its utility for other bird species. The factors that influenced alert distances of four bird species to pedestrian approaches in five large wooded fragments in the city of Madrid (Spain) were analysed. Location of human activity affected only Passer domesticus alert distances, which increased in the proximity of pathways. Habitat structure modified alert distances of all the species (Passer domesticus, Turdus merula, Columba palumbus, and Pica pica), increasing bird tolerance with greater availability of escape cover (shrub and coniferous cover, and shrub height). Alert distances varied among species, with large species being less tolerant of human disturbance than small ones. Alert distance appears to be a more conservative indicator of tolerance than flight distances, because it includes a buffer zone (the difference between alert and flight distance) in which birds may adapt their reaction to the behaviour of visitors. Alert distance may be used in the determination of minimum approaching areas, allowing people to enjoy their visit to parks, and birds to use patches for foraging and breeding without being displaced.

(Received November 17 2000)
(Accepted May 3 2001)

Key Words: alert distance; bird tolerance; flight distance; human disturbance; park design.

c1 Correspondence: Dr Esteban Fernández-Juricic, Department of Zoology, Oxford University, Oxford OX1 3PS, UK e-mail: estebanfj@yahoo.com