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Habituation and habitat changes can moderate the impacts of human disturbance on shorebird breeding performance


Penn Lloyd, Percy FitzPatrick Institute, DST/NRF Centre of Excellence, University of Cape Town, Private Bag X3, Rondebosch 7701, South Africa.


Disturbance by humans is widely expected to reduce the reproductive fitness of nesting birds if disturbance reduces nest attentiveness, and unattended eggs experience increased risk of predation or exposure to potentially lethal temperature extremes. Yet, relatively few studies have examined the physiological or behavioural mechanisms whereby disturbance influences reproductive fitness, or the extent to which the costs of disturbance may be reduced through habituation. We compared the behavioural responses, egg temperatures and reproductive success of shore-nesting white-fronted plovers Charadrius marginatus to disturbance at two breeding sites experiencing low versus high human recreational activity, respectively. Daytime nest attentiveness decreased with increasing experimental disturbance at both sites, but this relationship differed between sites; for any given level of disturbance, incubating birds at the more disturbed site had greater nest attentiveness. They achieved this through habituation, allowing a closer human approach before leaving the nest, and returning to the nest faster after a disturbance event. Despite lower average daytime nest attentiveness at the more disturbed site, incubation temperatures did not differ significantly between sites. Nest mortality, mostly by natural mammalian and corvid predators, was significantly lower at the site experiencing high recreational activity. However, chick mortality was significantly greater at the more disturbed site, most likely because of predation by domestic dogs. Chick mortality may have been increased by the habitation of chicks, whose escape responses were much reduced at the more disturbed site. Nonetheless, annual fecundity was substantially higher at the more disturbed site, showing that the overall reproductive fitness of wild birds is not always compromised by human disturbance and urbanization.