What conservation solutions are available if a protected bird of prey is feeding on the chicks of red-listed colonial or semi-colonial waders/shorebirds? A paper from the RSPB science team (which actually focuses on amber-listed Little Terns) may well be of interest to conservation practitioners and research ecologists.
Threats to young chicks
Predation can limit bird populations, especially in ground-nesting and colonial species. In the UK, non-native mink can be trapped, foxes can be shot and badgers can be kept away using fences – but what can you do if a Kestrel is eating your Little Tern chicks? That’s the subject of a new paper by Dr Jen Smart (RSPB) and Dr Arjun Amar (RSPB & Fitzpatrick Institute of African Ornithology, University of Cape Town).
One potential solution in a predator/prey conflict situation is to use Diversionary Feeding – providing prey items that are easier to collect than wader or tern chicks. In their paper in the Journal for Nature Conservation, Jen Smart and Arjun Amar test the efficacy of this solution. In this example, the prey items were Little Tern chicks and the predators were a small number of nesting Kestrels but the same situation could arise on a beach with nesting Ringed Plover, on an island with nesting Avocets or on a wet grassland with semi-colonial Lapwings.
Over a seventeen-year period, teams of RSPB staff and volunteers have been trying to help Little Terns nesting in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. It’s an internationally important colony of up to 369 pairs, which is equivalent to about a quarter of the UK population. It is also close to a local conurbation, with generalist predators such as foxes, cats, crows and gulls, on a beach that is a favourite with dog-walkers.
Electric fences and friendly wardens can keep most people and animals away but birds are still a problem, especially a small number of Kestrels that have learnt that the tern colony is a great feeding area. In six of the 17 years, feeding stations were set up close to Kestrel nests, to try to reduce the impact of Kestrels on the Little Terns. In four years (two with Diversionary Feeding and two without) there was intensive monitoring of the Kestrels’ feeding behaviour, to ascertain how their diet changed when alternative food was supplied.
Does Diversionary Feeding work?
In the Great Yarmouth Little Tern colony, predation by Kestrels has been a serious issue. Over the whole 17-year study period, at least 3436 Little Tern chicks were taken by Kestrels and, to put this in context, only 2536 chicks fledged.
In the face of this challenging situation, providing food very close to the nest sites of individual Kestrels that were known to focus their attention on the Little Tern colony has been remarkably successful.
The key results from the paper are:
- Predation levels were 47% lower and productivity of Little Terns almost doubled in years when Kestrels were fed.
- During the four years of intensive monitoring, predation rates were eight times as high when diversionary feeding was not employed. This equates to 9.1 Little Tern chicks per day, as opposed to 1.1 chicks per day.
Providing alternative prey, in the form of surplus day-old poultry chicks and laboratory mice, not only reduced the impact on Little Terns; it reduced predation of other local wildlife. By observing the prey that was delivered to the nest, over the course of four breeding seasons, the research team found that 3.4 times as many items of wild prey were presented to Kestrel chicks in the two years when alternative food was not provided, compared to the years with Diversionary Feeding.
The researchers note that, by counting prey items provided to Kestrel chicks, they are ignoring the tern chicks that will have been consumed by adults. They suggest that young tern chicks were treated as ‘snacks’ for adults, possibly because they were too small to be worth transporting back to the nest. They estimate that 20% of the artificial food supplied to the Kestrels may have been eaten by the adults.
- The cost of supplying food to the Kestrels was between £100 and £200 per nest. The cost of employing a research assistant to find, feed and monitor nests was £12,000. Now, having proved that Diversionary Feeding works, it would be possible to significantly reduce staff time, because the intensive monitoring undertaken as part of this study would only be necessary for a short time, to ensure any fed kestrels were responding positively to the food provided.
- There is a large amount of detail in the paper about the specifics of Diversionary Feeding in this situation. Supplementary materials provide details about the timing of predation events across the day and information about how much food per day was supplied to the Kestrels, over the course of the breeding season.
A growing problem?
As the number of breeding birds in the wider countryside has declined, hot-spots such as nature reserves have attracted the attention of predators. Providing increased areas of suitable habitat for species such as Marsh Harriers and Bitterns, reintroducing species (e.g. Red Kite) and providing nest sites (e.g. Peregrine) in areas that are close to key sites for colonial and semi-colonial waders (and terns) may well mean that we see more conflicts between pairs of avian predator and prey species, both parties of which are of conservation concern. In some cases, as for the Norfolk Kestrels, a small number of individuals learn to target areas in which there are high concentrations of young birds.
The authors point out that different predator-prey interactions may well require different conservation solutions. In the case of Kestrels, the adults were well able to dissuade scavengers from approaching the feeding sites, which were located close to their nests. In other situations, feeding sites could themselves attract predators, scavengers and vermin, especially if food supply is not regulated carefully. Any Diversionary Feeding measures will need to be thoughtfully monitored to check for unintended consequences.
Diversionary Feeding may well be an important tool to use in specific circumstances; it’s already used by the RSPB to deter Red Kites preying on Lapwings at a nature reserve in Oxfordshire, for instance. Conservation practitioners and research scientists will find it useful to read the whole paper. If Diversionary Feeding is employed, then it seems sensible to develop protocols to test whether it works in different predator-prey systems and to report back on the outcomes.
This work is published as: Diversionary feeding as a means of reducing raptor predation at seabird breeding colonies Jennifer Smart and Arjun Amar, Journal for Nature Conservation, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jnc.2018.09.003
Graham (@grahamfappleton) has studied waders for over 40 years and is currently involved in wader research in the UK and in Iceland. He was Director of Communications at The British Trust for Ornithology until 2013 and is now a freelance writer and broadcaster.