Understanding avian responses to ungulate-induced habitat modification is important because deer populations are increasing across much of temperate Europe and North America. Our experimental study examined whether habitat quality for Blackcaps (Sylvia atricapilla) in young woodland in eastern England was affected by deer, by comparing Blackcap behavior, abundance, and condition between paired plots (half of each pair protected from deer). The vegetation in each pair of plots was the same age. The Blackcap is an ideal model species for testing effects of deer on avian habitat quality because it is dependent on dense understory vegetation and is abundant throughout much of Europe. We compared timing of settlement, abundance, age structure (second-year vs. after-second-year), and phenotypic quality (measured as a body condition index, body mass divided by tarsus length) between experimental and control plots. We used point counts to examine Blackcap distribution, and standardized mist netting to collect demographic and biometric data. Incidence of singing Blackcaps was higher in nonbrowsed than in browsed plots, and singing males were recorded in nonbrowsed plots earlier in the season, indicating earlier and preferential territory establishment. Most Blackcaps, both males and females, were captured in vegetation prior to canopy closure (2–4 years of regrowth). Body condition was superior for male Blackcaps captured in nonbrowsed plots; for second-year males this was most marked in vegetation prior to canopy closure. We conclude that deer browsing in young
woodland can alter habitat quality for understory-dependent species, with potential consequences for individual fitness and population productivity beyond the more obvious effects on population density.