Brood ranging behaviour and breeding success of the threatened little bustard in an intensified cereal farmland area

Oct 25, 2020

Cereal pseudo-steppes hold the largest proportion of declining bird species in Europe. Understanding how this process of decline is driven is essential for designing adequate management practices. The little bustard (Tetrax tetrax) is one of such threatened steppe-land bird species, which has suffered recent dramatic range constrictions and population declines. Although low breeding success has been claimed to be the main threat for the viability of future little bustard populations, the surprising lack of studies dealing with ecological requirements of broods hinders the implementation of efficient conservation practices. We studied the ranging behaviour and the reproductive success of a little bustard population by means of female radio-tracking conducted during 2006–2008 breeding seasons in the Ebro basin (NE Spain). We recorded an average breeding success of 0.27 chicks/hen, which is not enough to sustain a viable population according to the demographic models for the species. Early-laid clutches showed more probabilities to hatch and to fledge. This was associated to two different ranging patterns (i.e. sedentary versus wandering respectively) which depended on the ability of the hen and its chicks to settle in suitable areas harbouring enough arthropods and shelter for chicks. Such resources decrease drastically as the breeding season progresses. Overall, data suggest that agricultural practices associated to agricultural intensification, particularly early harvest, reduce breeding success both directly by nest destruction and indirectly through a decrease on resource availability for broods. Based on our findings on the characteristics and structure of the home range of little bustard broods, we propose the creation of a network of permanent vegetation plots interconnected by high-quality field margins as a management practice to raise the breeding success of little bustards and other ground-nesting birds on cereal farmland.

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