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Keywords:

  • nest predators;
  • predator control;
  • prey switching;
  • rabbit abundance;
  • rabbit haemorrhagic disease

Abstract

Predation by introduced mammals is decimating New Zealand's indigenous fauna. Understanding factors that influence this process allows resources for predator control to be applied with maximum effect. This study examines how predation of a secondary prey species (a relatively common but declining native plover, the banded dotterel Charadrius bicinctus) varied with reductions in abundance of a major prey source (rabbits), kill-trapping of predators, nest density and habitat complexity. Banded dotterels mostly nest in open braided riverbeds alongside a number of endemic threatened species. We measured the fate of 753 dotterel clutches exposed to predation by cats, ferrets and hedgehogs. We found key times and places of high predation risk. Immediately after widespread reduction in rabbit populations by rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD), clutch predation rates were almost as high (mean, 50%) as those recorded during past rabbit poisoning programmes (mean, 57%). Both rates were significantly higher than the mean predation rate of 22% without rabbit control, suggesting a shift in predator diet immediately after rabbit population declines. Unlike after rabbit poisoning, clutch predation rate remained high in the years after RHD. Other patterns observed included higher clutch predation rate where nest density was lower, suggesting that predation can potentially cause local extinction. Clutch predation was also higher along riverbed margins where vegetation was dense. There was equivocal evidence for an effect of predator kill-trapping on clutch predation rate. Management strategies that could potentially reduce clutch predation risks include focusing predator mitigation measures during periods of rabbit decline, maintaining them for more than one breeding season if the rabbit declines are widespread (e.g. RHD epidemics), and applying greater effort at sites with relatively low nest density and along riverbed margins where predator use is more frequent.