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Demographic effects of extreme winter weather in the barn owl

Altwegg, Res, Roulin, Alexandre, Kestenholz, Matthias, Jenni, Lukas
Oecologia 2006 v.149 no.1 pp. 44-51
Tyto alba, adults, climate, environmental impact, juveniles, mortality, population dynamics, reproduction, variance, weather, winter, Switzerland
Extreme weather events can lead to immediate catastrophic mortality. Due to their rare occurrence, however, the long-term impacts of such events for ecological processes are unclear. We examined the effect of extreme winters on barn owl (Tyto alba) survival and reproduction in Switzerland over a 68-year period (~20 generations). This long-term data set allowed us to compare events that occurred only once in several decades to more frequent events. Winter harshness explained 17 and 49% of the variance in juvenile and adult survival, respectively, and the two harshest winters were associated with major population crashes caused by simultaneous low juvenile and adult survival. These two winters increased the correlation between juvenile and adult survival from 0.63 to 0.69. Overall, survival decreased non-linearly with increasing winter harshness in adults, and linearly in juveniles. In contrast, brood size was not related to the harshness of the preceding winter. Our results thus reveal complex interactions between climate and demography. The relationship between weather and survival observed during regular years is likely to underestimate the importance of climate variation for population dynamics.