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Keywords:

  • Ardea alba;
  • corticosterone;
  • Eudocimus albus;
  • Florida Everglades;
  • heat shock proteins;
  • nesting ecology;
  • pre-breeding

Abstract

In long-lived species, the balance between the benefits of reproduction and the costs from reduced survival or productivity is particularly challenging in dynamic environments like wetlands, where food levels vary greatly year to year. Some wetland species exhibit changes in reproductive strategies in response to food availability but whether physiological responses function in a similar manner is unclear. We compared the pre-breeding physiological responses (fecal corticosterone [FCORT], heat shock protein 60 [HSP60], and mass) of 2 species of wading birds with contrasting foraging strategies (great egret [Ardea alba], an exploiter, and white ibis [Eudocimus albus], a searcher) during years with contrasting levels of prey availability. Both species were in good physiological condition, with low levels of HSP60 and FCORT, during a year with high prey availability (2006). In a contrasting year with lesser prey availability (2007), HSP60 and FCORT concentrations indicated that ibis physiological condition was reduced, whereas egrets showed little change. Egrets and male ibis increased body mass, whereas female ibis decreased mass, in the year with low prey availability. Although poorly understood, we hypothesize that the differential response between female ibis and the others is associated with differential investment strategies based on long-term costs of reproduction. Model results identified prey availability and the 2-week water recession rate as the primary habitat variables that were associated with the physiological condition of white ibises, whereas great egret physiological condition was influenced mostly by 2-week water recession rate. Our results support the hypothesis that prey availability and hydrological factors play crucial roles in regulating populations of wading birds in the Florida Everglades. The results of this study show a more complete pathway by which hydrologic patterns affect wading birds, and it suggests that ibis are more sensitive to habitat conditions than are egrets. This information can be used to refine species models designed to evaluate water management scenarios and will improve our ability to manage and restore wetland ecosystems © 2012 The Wildlife Society.