Effects of agricultural land use on tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) reproduction, body condition and diet
Agricultural practices have intensified over the last 50 years, increasing crop production and altering the Canadian Prairie landscape by removing non-cropped habitats and wetlands. The productivity, trophic structure and diversity have changed through increased agrochemical inputs and reductions in yearly rotation and diversification of crop types. Most intensive agricultural practices have negative effects on invertebrate communities that can indirectly affect higher trophic organisms, such as birds. Many populations of aerial insectivorous bird species have been experiencing rapid declines in the last 30–40 years. Dependency on high abundances of aerial insects for reproduction and survival is a common link among all species of this guild. My thesis examined aerial insect abundance as a potential link between agricultural land use and the reproductive ecology, nestling body condition, and diet of an aerial insectivore species, the tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor). My broad goal was to determine whether agriculture has deleterious effects on timing of breeding, reproductive investment and success, and nestling quality, as mediated by food supply and differences in diet. Aerial insect abundance and biomass estimates obtained from passive insect traps which capture primarily aquatic dipterans were similar between agricultural and reference sites during all stages of breeding. However, estimates derived from sweep-net sampling in terrestrial habitats in 2013 indicated higher abundances of aquatic and terrestrial Diptera at a reference site relative to agricultural sites. Multiple measures of tree swallow productivity were not related to agriculture land use but nestling body condition was significantly lower on agricultural sites. Using stable isotope analysis (delta 13C and delta 15N), I found site and age specific differences in swallow diets and isotopic niche widths but variation was not consistently related to agricultural land use. Aquatic insect prey (Diptera and Odonata) made up the majority of the diet of swallows but nestlings had a larger proportion of terrestrial Diptera which resulted in larger isotopic niche widths compared to adults. The assimilated isotopic diet of nestling and adult swallows were not strong predictors of body size, mass or condition, suggesting that site differences in the diet do not appreciably affect condition. Nestlings raised on agricultural sites had lower body condition that was not directly linked to their diet alone. This suggests other unmeasured factors related to agricultural land use may affect nestling tree swallows. This study tested responses in an aerial insectivore species to land use and potential shifts in the insect community, which may provide important information for conservation and management decisions for many species within the aerial insectivore guild.
DegreeMaster of Science (M.Sc.)
SupervisorMorrissey, Christy A.; Clark, Robert G.
CommitteeJardine, Tim; Wiebe, Karen L.
Copyright DateNovember 2015
agricultural land use