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Keywords:

  • agriculture;
  • arable;
  • artificial ecosystems;
  • conservation;
  • habitat change;
  • preference;
  • wetlands

Abstract

Agricultural intensification over the last 60 decades has been linked to decreases in biodiversity and in the breeding populations of several avian species in farmlands. However, agricultural intensification has not affected all species in the same way and transformed landscapes can still provide suitable habitats for species tolerant to some degree of anthropogenic change. Understanding habitat selection in man-made landscapes is a pre-requisite to effective management and conservation of the species that use them. However, habitat-related choices made by individuals occupying these landscapes are often difficult to explain, as the cues they use may be decoupled from the ecological context in which they evolved. Here, we investigated nesting habitat selection in a ground-nesting raptor breeding mainly in wetlands, which, unlike many other species occupying farmlands, has experienced a population increase in some agricultural regions. We used multivariate analysis to assess the extent to which habitat characteristics, human disturbance or proximity to other occupied sites influenced nesting-site occupancy. Our results indicate that Marsh harriers occupied breeding sites according to habitat cues obtained at two complementary spatial scales (i.e. the breeding site and the foraging area). This study indicates that a raptor species that uses human-made structures such as ponds for breeding while exploiting their surrounding crops for hunting can take advantage of agricultural intensification. Environmental disturbances are often viewed only in terms of their harmful impacts on the affected species. However, human activities are causing many types of alterations in natural landscapes that can be exploited by certain species with positive responses towards these transformations. The adaptation of some raptors to human-altered environments, such as the Marsh harrier in our study area, raises doubts regarding the appropriateness of using such species as indicators of natural habitat quality.