Effects of changes in farming of subalpine meadows on a grassland bird, the whinchat (Saxicola rubetra)

Abstract

The increasing intensity of farming of meadows is supposed to be the major cause for strong declines of many meadow breeding birds. The whinchat, Saxicola rubetra, a Palaearctic migratory bird, is an indicator species of open grassland farmed at a low intensity. Originally widespread throughout Switzerland, it is now restricted to mountain and subalpine grassland. We document the changes in meadow cultivation in subalpine farmland from 1988 to 2002, and the breeding performance and density of the whinchat. We explored the impact of habitat degradation on the population dynamics of this meadow bird. The cultivation of hay meadows changed markedly within the 15 years: the onset of mowing was shifted forward by about 20 days, and farmers applied new techniques such as silage and irrigation. This shift was more pronounced in the favourable farmland in the valley bottom (Pradellas) than on the slopes (Vnà). The percentage of successful whinchat broods, ranging from 5% to 78% in different years, strongly depended on mowing date on both sites. In spite of earlier mowing, birds did not change their time schedule of breeding. Breeding success in Pradellas was too low to compensate for mortality (sink population), but because of immigration the number of breeding pairs did not decrease untill 2000. Population size may therefore be a misleading indicator of local population viability. Based on the breeding schedule of whinchats at different altitudes, we recommend mowing dates in agreement with the reproductive cycle of ground nesting meadow birds.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the late M. Leuenberger, R. Wüst, P. Lustenberger and R. Pfüller for their field assistance. M. Schaub helped with the statistical analyses of survival rates. World Wildlife Found Switzerland, Pro Natura Switzerland, BirdLife Switzerland, Karl-Mayer foundation, Däniker foundation, and the Animal Protection Society of the canton Zurich supported the field study in the Engadine in 1987 and 1988.

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Correspondence to Reto Spaar.

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Müller, M., Spaar, R., Schifferli, L. et al. Effects of changes in farming of subalpine meadows on a grassland bird, the whinchat (Saxicola rubetra). J Ornithol 146, 14–23 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10336-004-0059-0

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Keywords

  • Agricultural practice
  • Alps
  • Ground-nesting songbird
  • Meadow cultivation
  • Saxicola rubetra