Wildflower areas within revitalized agricultural matrices boost small mammal populations but not breeding Barn Owls

Abstract

Agro-ecosystems have recently experienced dramatic losses of biodiversity due to more intensive production methods. In order to increase species diversity, agri-environment schemes provide subsidies to farmers who devote a fraction of their land to ecological compensation areas (ECAs). Several studies have shown that invertebrate biodiversity is actually higher in ECAs than in nearby intensively cultivated farmland. It remains poorly understood, however, to what extent ECAs also favour vertebrates, such as small mammals and their predators, which would contribute to restoring functional food chains within revitalised agricultural matrices. We studied small mammal populations among eight habitat types—including wildflower areas, a specific ECA in Switzerland—and habitat selection (radiotracking) by the Barn Owl Tyto alba, one of their principal predators. Our prediction was that habitats with higher abundances of small mammals would be more visited by foraging Barn Owls during the period of chicks’ provisioning. Small mammal abundance tended to be higher in wildflower areas than in any other habitat type. Barn Owls, however, preferred to forage in cereal fields and grassland. They avoided all types of crops other than cereals, as well as wildflower areas, which suggests that they do not select their hunting habitat primarily with respect to prey density. Instead of prey abundance, prey accessibility may play a more crucial role: wildflower areas have a dense vegetation cover, which may impede access to prey for foraging owls. The exploitation of wildflower areas by the owls might be enhanced by creating open foraging corridors within or around wildflower areas. Wildflower areas managed in that way might contribute to restore functional links in food webs within agro-ecosystems.

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Acknowledgments

We are grateful to Adrian Aebischer, Jean-Pierre Airoldi, Janine Aschwanden, Iris Baumgartner, Julien Béguin, Otto Holzgang, Alan Juilland, Olivier Roth and Christine Wisler for their assistance. Special thanks also to the farmers who authorised captures on their land and to Juliet Vickery for corrections of the English of an earlier version of the manuscript and for constructive criticism.

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Correspondence to Raphaël Arlettaz.

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Communicated by F. Bairlein.

Appendix

Appendix

See Table 6.

Table 6 Population sizes of small mammals estimated with program CAPTURE (Otis et al. 1978) recorded in May, July and September, in eight habitat types and at four capture sites each

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Arlettaz, R., Krähenbühl, M., Almasi, B. et al. Wildflower areas within revitalized agricultural matrices boost small mammal populations but not breeding Barn Owls. J Ornithol 151, 553–564 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10336-009-0485-0

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Keywords

  • Ecological compensation areas
  • Agro-ecosystems
  • Small mammals
  • Species conservation