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Agricultural land use and human presence around breeding sites increase stress-hormone levels and decrease body mass in barn owl nestlings


Human activities can have a suite of positive and negative effects on animals and thus can affect various life history parameters. Human presence and agricultural practice can be perceived as stressors to which animals react with the secretion of glucocorticoids. The acute short-term secretion of glucocorticoids is considered beneficial and helps an animal to redirect energy and behaviour to cope with a critical situation. However, a long-term increase of glucocorticoids can impair e.g. growth and immune functions. We investigated how nestling barn owls (Tyto alba) are affected by the surrounding landscape and by human activities around their nest sites. We studied these effects on two response levels: (a) the physiological level of the hypothalamus–pituitary–adrenal axis, represented by baseline concentrations of corticosterone and the concentration attained by a standardized stressor; (b) fitness parameters: growth of the nestlings and breeding performance. Nestlings growing up in intensively cultivated areas showed increased baseline corticosterone levels late in the season and had an increased corticosterone release after a stressful event, while their body mass was decreased. Nestlings experiencing frequent anthropogenic disturbance had elevated baseline corticosterone levels, an increased corticosterone stress response and a lower body mass. Finally, breeding performance was better in structurally more diverse landscapes. In conclusion, anthropogenic disturbance affects offspring quality rather than quantity, whereas agricultural practices affect both life history traits.

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We warmly thank all the field assistants who helped during the long field days and nights from 2004 to 2010. We thank C. Frey and C. Sonnay for collecting and preparing the data on habitat characteristics, and F. Korner-Nievergelt and G. Pasinelli for discussing model selection and averaging. S. Jenni-Eiermann, Z. Tablado, Y. Bötsch and Hannu Pöysä and two anonymous reviewers gave valuables comments on an earlier draft. The Swiss National Science Foundation supported the study financially (no. 31003A-127057 to L. J., no. 31003A-120517 to A. R.).

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Correspondence to Bettina Almasi.

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Communicated by Hannu Pöysä.

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Almasi, B., Béziers, P., Roulin, A. et al. Agricultural land use and human presence around breeding sites increase stress-hormone levels and decrease body mass in barn owl nestlings. Oecologia 179, 89–101 (2015).

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  • Anthropogenic disturbance
  • Breeding success
  • Corticosterone
  • Disturbance
  • Fitness