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Effects of agricultural lands on habitat selection and breeding success of American kestrels in a boreal context

Touihri, Moez, Séguy, Marion, Imbeau, Louis, Mazerolle, Marc J., Bird, David M.
Agriculture, ecosystems & environment 2019 v.272 pp. 146-154
Falco sparverius, adults, agricultural land, anthropogenic activities, breeding, breeding season, ecological traps, falcons, fledglings, food availability, forests, habitat preferences, harvesting, hatching, hay, landscapes, meadows, nest boxes, nesting, nesting sites, nestlings, population dynamics, probability, reproductive success, swamps, temperature, weather
Sudden changes in habitat quality during the breeding season may mislead individuals when selecting their nesting site and result in population declines. In such cases, even semi-natural and extensive agricultural lands may become ecological traps. We examined how the availability of six open habitat types (i.e. agricultural lands, open forests, alder swamps, young forests, regeneration, and wetlands) could be affecting the habitat selection process, as well as the hatching and fledging successes of American kestrels (Falco sparverius). We hypothesized that natural open habitats are less disturbed by anthropogenic activities than extensive agricultural lands and thus represent higher quality habitats for kestrels. We also considered weather conditions during the breeding season as possible factors affecting hatching and fledging successes. We monitored 200 pairs of American kestrels during 11 years (2006–2016) within a network of 155 nest box stations and we characterized landscape composition metrics within 800 m radii from each nest box. We used generalized linear mixed models and multimodel inference to quantify the effects of landscape composition metrics on the probabilities of using nesting site, hatching success, and fledging success of American kestrels. We also tested the effects of weather conditions and clutch initiation date on hatching and fledging successes of kestrels. We found that the probability of nesting site use increased with the amount of agricultural lands. Hatching success decreased with the amount of agricultural lands, whereas the fledging success of kestrels did not vary with the amount of agricultural lands. Both the probabilities of hatching and of fledging increased with the area of young forests. There was no evidence of a weather effect on hatching success. However, the probability of fledging success increased with mean temperature during the raising period of nestlings. Although fledging success alone does not determine fitness or population dynamics, our results suggest that kestrels nesting in this region at the northern limit of their range may be caught in an ecological trap by extensive agricultural lands. Indeed, kestrels were attracted by meadows when selecting nesting habitat, but the hatching and early nestling periods coincided with hay harvesting which could reduce the hunting success of breeding adults and suddenly alter food availability. Although the causes of recent kestrel declines remain unclear, our results suggest that harvesting practices, even those related to extensive perennial agriculture, may have a negative effect on the breeding success of the species compared to areas dominated by young forests.