Protected areas are intended to promote biodiversity representation and persistence; yet, whether they are effective in degraded landscapes where much of the original vegetation structure remains intact has received relatively little attention. We test whether avian assemblages in communal rangelands in savannas differ from savannas supporting a full complement of native herbivores and predators. Birds were surveyed in 36 transect counts conducted over 18 days. We also compare the vegetation structure between the two land-use types to assess whether differences in bird assemblages could be attributed to changes in vegetation structure. Bird assemblages were richer, had greater abundances and different compositions inside protected areas than rangelands. The median body mass of birds was larger inside than outside protected areas, and rangelands supported fewer grassland specialists, but more closed-canopy specialists. However, no differences in feeding guild composition were found between protected areas and communal rangelands. Additionally, vegetation structure, but not richness, differed between protected areas and communal rangelands: communal rangelands had higher densities of woody vegetation and shorter grass height than the protected areas. Our findings suggest that the altered vegetation structure in communal grazing camps has led to changes in the species richness and composition of bird communities and has been selected by closed-canopy specialists at the cost of open grassy specialists. Hunting in communal rangelands is likely to have resulted in the loss of large birds and in reductions in bird abundance in the rangelands. Therefore, land-use management that does not lead to irreversible landscape transformation can nevertheless result in changes in the diversity, composition and functioning of native assemblages.
Conservation implications: Savanna landscapes that are degraded, but not transformed, support fewer bird species, fewer open habitat specialists and smaller birds because of vegetation homogenisation.