Understanding the contribution of habitats and regional variation to long-term population trends in tricolored blackbirds



Population trends represent a minimum amount of information required to assess the conservation status of a species. However, understanding and detecting trends can be complicated by variation among habitats and regions, and by dispersal connecting habitats through source-sink dynamics. We analyzed trends in breeding populations between habitats and regions to better understand the overall dynamics of a species' decline. Specifically, we analyzed historical trends in breeding populations of tricolored blackbirds (Agelaius tricolor) using breeding records from 1907 to 2009. The species breeds itinerantly and ephemerally uses multiple habitat types and breeding areas, which make interpretation of trends complex. We found overall abundance declines of 63% between 1935 and 1975. Since 1980 overall declines became nonsignificant and obscure despite large amounts of data from 1980 to 2009. Temporal trends differed between breeding habitat types and were associated with regional differences in population declines. A new habitat, triticale crops (a wheat-rye hybrid grain) produced colonies 40× larger, on average, than other breeding habitats, and contributed to a change in regional distribution since it primarily occurred in a single region. The mechanism for such an effect is not clear, but could represent the local availability of foodstuffs in the landscape rather than something specific to triticale crops. While variation in trends among habitats clearly occurred, they could not easily be ascribed to source-sink dynamics, ecological traps, habitat selection or other detailed ecological mechanisms. Nonetheless, such exchanges provide valuable information to guide management of dynamic systems.