Wetlands in tropical agricultural landscapes are maintained largely by local institutions explicitly for human use, which is assumed to deter biodiversity. Conservation efforts have been biased towards protecting large wetlands that are assumed to be adequate to conserve the majority of species of focal taxa, usually birds. These assumptions remain untested, and landscape-scale conservation planning for wetlands is largely absent, as is a generalised understanding of wetland use by focal taxa. We designed a landscape-scale survey to understand patterns and processes determining beta diversity of birds using agricultural wetlands in south-western Uttar Pradesh, India where wetlands have experienced prolonged and intensive human use for several centuries. Observed bird species richness (99 species in 28 wetlands) is the highest known for any agricultural landscape in south Asia signifying that even intensive human use of wetlands does not necessarily deter their ability to retain biodiversity. Birds exhibited strong scale
dependent wetland use underscoring the need to conserve wetlands of varying sizes and at varying densities on the landscape. Beta diversity was due largely to species turnover (0.877) with minimal effect due to nestedness (0.055) suggesting that conserving a few large wetlands will not adequately meet goals of conserving the majority of wetland bird species. Prevailing assumptions regarding biodiversity conservation in tropical agricultural wetlands require being revised, and a landscape-scale approach that incorporates ecological realities is needed. Incorporating local institutions alongside formal protectionist methods offer a potential win–win situation to maximise conservation of biodiversity in tropical agricultural wetlands.