Diet composition of a declining steppe bird the little bustard (Tetrax tetrax) in relation to farming practices

Oct 25, 2020

Foraging strategies and diet selection play an essential role in individual survival and reproductive success. The study of feeding ecology becomes crucial when it concerns endangered species such as the Little Bustard (Tetrax tetrax), whose populations are suffering strong declines as a consequence of agricultural intensification. Despite the fact that several populations are overwintering in areas affected by agricultural transformation, nothing is known about how feeding behavior responds to these changes. We studied for the first time the winter diet composition of the Little Bustard in Spain and compared it between areas with two different farming systems: dry and irrigated farmland. Diet was studied through the micro-histological analysis of 357 droppings collected in 16 locations across the wintering range of the Little Bustard in Spain. Up to 62 plant species were identified. Most consumed species were cultivated legumes (46.7%) and dicotyledon weeds (45.6%), while monocotyledons were scarcely consumed (7.7%). Diet composition differed significantly between dry and irrigated farmland areas. In irrigated areas, diet was mainly composed of legumes, in particular alfalfa (Medicago sativa). In contrast, in dry farmland areas diet was more diverse, composed mainly of weeds (Compositae, Papaveraceae, and Cruciferae) and also cultivated legumes, particularly vetch (Vicia sativa). These results suggest that legume crops could be an effective measure to improve habitat quality in areas with scarce food resources. However, in the case of irrigated areas, the strong reliance on alfalfa could make the Little Bustard more vulnerable to changes in land use. This study is the first step to understand the winter trophic requirements of the endangered Little Bustard, but further research is necessary to understand the food requirements of this species during the entire annual cycle.


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