An experimental study of the effects of predation on the breeding productivity of capercaillie and black grouse

Authors


R. W. Summers, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Etive House Beechwood Park, Inverness IV2 3BW, UK (e-mail ron.summers@rspb.org.uk).

Summary

  • 1The capercaillie Tetrao urogallus and black grouse Tetrao tetrix are declining in the UK, and low breeding success has been identified as the key factor in the decline of the former. To investigate possible causes, breeding productivity was studied in relation to predation, weather, vegetation changes and deer numbers over an 11-year period (1989–99) within native pinewood at Abernethy Forest, Scotland. The abundance of predators (crows Corvus corone and red foxes Vulpes vulpes) was experimentally manipulated in 1992–96 by culling. Productivity (chicks reared per female) was compared between forests with and without experimental predator management.
  • 2During predator control, the number of breeding crows was reduced from 10 pairs to one. The attempted reduction in red fox abundance was unsuccessful; only small numbers of adults were killed, and neither scat nor den counts declined significantly.
  • 3Predation on artificial nests containing six hen eggs and a hen egg filled with wax was measured as an index of predator activity from 1991 to 1999. Predation was lowest during the last three years of predator control, 1994–96. Predators could sometimes be distinguished by signs on depredated eggs. Predation on artificial nests by crows was highest during 1991–93. However, after predator removal stopped in 1997 few crows returned, and increased predation on artificial nests did not involve increased signs of crow predation. Pine marten Martes martes numbers increased during the study period and became significant predators of artificial nests.
  • 4The total number of capercaillie eggs and nests depredated by crows was estimated from the number of depredated capercaillie eggs found and the proportion of crow-predated hen eggs in artificial nests. The values ranged from 18 to 158 eggs over 3 years, equivalent to 3–23 capercaillie nests year−1.
  • 5Capercaillie productivity was low (< 1 chick per female) during 1989–93 and 1997–99 but higher during 1994–96. Compared with nine other forests in Scotland, changes in capercaillie productivity at Abernethy were different. Productivity at Abernethy was negatively related to June rainfall, and to the minimum daily predation rate on artificial nests by crows. There was also a significant interaction in that capercaillie were most productive when low rainfall coincided with low predation by crows on artificial nests.
  • 6The productivities of black grouse and capercaillie were positively correlated, but greater in the former. As in capercaillie, black grouse productivity was negatively related both to June rainfall and the minimum daily predation rate on artificial nests by crows, and there was an interaction.
  • 7Synthesis and applications. The long-term increase in crows and red foxes and the predicted increase in rainfall in Scotland may have negative effects on capercaillie and black grouse. In the short term, control of crows is likely to improve productivity. In the long term, increased woodland size and some reversal of fragmentation might decrease the access to woodland of predators associated with the interface between farmland and woodland.

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