Abstract

In recent decades, farmland bird populations have declined strongly as a consequence of agriculture intensification. Birds may have lost breeding sites, food supply or other crucial resources, with the role of multiple factors often remaining unclear. The ant-eating and cavity-breeding Wryneck (Jynx torquilla) may be limited by the availability of cavities, the number of ants or their accessibility. By comparing occupied and unoccupied breeding territories, we investigated the relative role of these factors in the decline of Wrynecks. We compared the characteristics of known Wryneck breeding territories (availability of breeding cavities, food abundance and ground vegetation structure) with randomly selected, fictitious territories (n = 154) in Western Switzerland. We also studied environmental factors that may affect ant nest density. The probability of territory occupancy strongly increased with both nestbox availability and ant abundance. In addition, this probability peaked around 50% of bare ground cover. Habitat types that harbour low ant abundance such as cropland and grassland were avoided. Ant nest density decreased with increasing amounts of bare ground, and it was particularly high in vineyards. Our results showed that breeding cavities, food availability and its accessibility all limit Wryneck distribution. The maintenance and restoration of ant rich grassland, interspersed with patches of bare ground and with hollow trees or dedicated nestboxes in the surroundings, are essential to preserve Wryneck populations. Such a habitat structure could be achieved even in intensively farmed habitats, such as in vineyards or fruit tree plantations.

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