Public Release: 

A look at development, rural trends, birds

University of Michigan

ANN ARBOR---The American landscape continues to change dramatically. Exurban residential developments can be both environmentally responsible and appealing. Insect-eating birds help bring your morning latte.

Those are among the topics that researchers at the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and Environment (SNRE) will be discussing when the Ecological Society of America holds its annual meeting in Tucson on Aug. 4-9.

Rural land use trends in the U.S., 1950-2000

The research results take a detailed look at the dramatic changes in land use.

"Low-density exurban development, which was virtually unknown in 1950, increased by 2000 to occupy nearly 10 times the area of urbanized land," said Daniel Brown of SNRE. "Agricultural land use increased in areas throughout the cornbelt and parts of the west, but decreased east of the Mississippi River."

Some rural areas are receiving a significant influx of people and others are continuing to lose population, Brown said. For instance, in the Mid-Atlantic region, the team found that Piedmont eco-regions have become extensively urbanized while Appalachian eco-regions experienced very slow rates of land cover change.

The research was conducted by Brown and colleagues Kenneth Johnson (Loyola University), Thomas Loveland (USGS EROS Data Center), and David Theobald (Colorado State University). Dan Brown can be reached at (734) 763-5803, email

Exurban residential development

Farmland continues to disappear as city residents move beyond suburbs and into the exurbs, but special planning can help minimize the effect on the environment.

"We didn't ask, 'how can you stop this trend?' Instead we thought about what we could do in areas where this trend is occurring, to improve its ecological effects. We said, 'Where people are going to live on large lots, can we design residential development patterns that would deliver larger public benefits like clean water and native biodiversity---and still be practical in terms of public acceptance?'" said Joan Nassauer, who co-authored the exurban development paper with David Allan, Dana Infante and Sandra Kosek, all of SNRE.

The authors designed new forms of exurban residential development to investigate how they would be perceived by the public and how they could affect aquatic ecosystems. One of their hypotheses is that new exurban developments that are designed to be ecologically beneficial could produce healthier aquatic eco-systems than conventional residential development or conventional agriculture. Joan Nassauer can be reached at (734) 763-9893, email

The benefits of birds

Whether you prefer a mocha latte or a cappuccino, the next time you're in line at the coffee shop, you might want to thank a bird. According to ecologist and conservation biologist Ivette Perfecto, insect-eating birds have a positive effect on coffee plantations by reducing the number of insects that munch on the coffee plants.

In field experiments that excluded birds from some of the coffee plants, the plants suffered significantly higher levels of damage from plant-eating insects. While the birds also eat larger, predatory insects such as spiders, the overall effect of birds on the plants was positive. Yvette Perfecto can be reached via email at


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