Nav: Home

Researcher studies increased predation of sagebrush songbirds in natural gas fields

December 14, 2016

Arid land bird populations are in decline around the vicinity of oil and gas wells in Wyoming -- but, not for the reasons you might initially think.

While such development has encroached on and hindered nesting habitat for three types of sagebrush-obligate birds, predation of these birds has increased because rodent populations in the vicinity of oil and gas wells have increased, which has, in turn, increased nest predation.

Anna Chalfoun, a University of Wyoming associate professor in the Department of Zoology and Physiology, and assistant unit leader of the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Unit, and her graduate students have been studying and collecting data about three species -- the Brewer's sparrow, sagebrush sparrow and sage thrasher -- in Wyoming for seven years. These birds use sagebrush for cover to build their nests on the ground or low to the ground within the sagebrush.

The study, which began seven years ago, has taken place at six sites in Jonah Field and six more at the Pinedale Anticline in western Wyoming.

"We found the majority of nest predators at the nests are rodents. Rodents are more abundant where there is natural gas development," Chalfoun says. "We tested the hypothesis that rodents were more abundant surrounding gas fields because their main predators (raptors, coyotes and badgers) avoided gas fields, but our data did not support this idea."

vLindsey Sanders, a UW master's student in zoology and physiology from Boulder Creek, Calif., conducted work on the above hypothesis, Chalfoun says.

Besides mice, these rodents include two species of squirrels -- Uinta ground squirrels and the 13-striped ground squirrel. "We are now continuing to try to figure out why the rodents are in the natural gas development areas where there is (nesting) habitat loss," Chalfoun says. "We are seeing more rodents. We are not sure why they are drawn to those areas. Another hypothesis is that they are receiving food subsidies from the sometimes novel types of plants that establish in the reclaimed areas surrounding well pads and along pipeline scars."

The study's findings show:
  • Sagebrush songbirds settled areas with more surrounding natural gas development, simultaneously or earlier than areas with less natural gas development. The birds settled there even though nest predation rates were higher. Their nesting period runs from May through late July.

    "Do songbirds prefer to settle in habitats that are not in gas fields? The answer is 'no,'" Chalfoun says. "Birds come from their wintering grounds just to breed. Songbirds apparently are not able to assess they are going to have higher nest predation there.

    "We've found that birds select sites with less energy development and lots of energy development at the same time. There's no pattern to settling areas with zero surrounding wells and areas that have tons of wells. As long as there are patches of significant sage, they are there. Yet, the birds are less successful at reproducing in gas well areas, suggesting these areas may be serving as ecological traps."

  • Detection of most rodent species increased with natural gas development.

    One current hypothesis is that a number of sheds on property where natural gas fields exist have drawn in the rodents, who use the structures for protection, warmth and to build nests for their young. This behavior, in turn, may be attracting more predators of the rodents, Chalfoun says.

    "In places like the Jonah Field, there are lots of little sheds and structures," she says. "What if this is providing a source of rodents that depredate nests? If the infrastructure is harboring the rodents, do we go and put out traps?"

  • Rates of nest predation increased with local rodent abundance.

From 2011-16, 93 percent of predation to Brewer's sparrows was caused by rodents. Of 44 predation events captured on infrared video camera, 24 were by deer mice. Chipmunks accounted for 11 nest deaths, while ground squirrels were responsible for six casualties. The loggerhead shrike, a type of bird, was responsible for the other three deaths.

During the same time period, 60 percent of predation of 23 sage thrasher nest depredations caught on camera was caused by rodents, including deer mice (eight), chipmunks (eight) and ground squirrels (four). Badgers were responsible for six deaths and magpies two. A raccoon, loggerhead shrike, American kestrel, short-eared owl and northern harrier each accounted for one death.

"I get jazzed to know what's going on," she says. "The mice are so aggressive. They sometimes suffocate and take the nestlings out one at a time. We've found the majority of nest predators at the nests are rodents.

"We started this because state and federal agencies, such as the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, and the U.S. Geological Survey, were interested in the effects of habitat change on nongame species of wildlife," she says.v

University of Wyoming

Related Predators Articles:

The European viper uses cloak-and-dazzle to escape predators
Research of the University of Jyväskylä demonstrates that the characteristic zig-zag pattern on a viper's back performs opposing functions during a predation event.
Predators help prey adapt to an uncertain future
What effect does extinction of species have on the evolution of surviving species?
To warn or to hide from predators?: New computer simulation provides answers
Some toxic animals are bright to warn predators from attacking them, and some hide the warning colors, showing them only at the very last moment when they are about to be attacked.
Dragonflies are efficient predators
A study led by the University of Turku, Finland, has found that small, fiercely predatory damselflies catch and eat hundreds of thousands of insects during a single summer -- in an area surrounding just a single pond.
Predators to spare
In 2014, a disease of epidemic proportions gripped the West Coast of the US.
Red-winged blackbird nestlings go silent when predators are near
If you're a predator that eats baby birds -- say, an American crow -- eavesdropping on the begging calls of nestlings can be an easy way to find your next meal.
A decade after the predators have gone, Galapagos Island finches are still being spooked
On some of the Galapagos Islands where human-introduced predators of Darwin's finches were eradicated over a decade ago, the finches are still acting as though they are in danger, according to research published today in the Journal of Animal Ecology.
Fear of predators causes PTSD-like changes in brains of wild animals
A new study by Western University demonstrates that the fear predators inspire can leave long-lasting traces in the neural circuitry of wild animals and induce enduringly fearful behaviour, comparable to effects seen in PTSD research.
Fear of predators increases risk of illness
Predators are not only a deadly threat to many animals, they also affect potential prey negatively simply by being nearby.
New study questions effects of reintroducing top predators
There's little evidence that reintroducing top predators to ecosystems will return them to the conditions that existed before they were wiped out, according to new research.
More Predators News and Predators Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Making Amends
What makes a true apology? What does it mean to make amends for past mistakes? This hour, TED speakers explore how repairing the wrongs of the past is the first step toward healing for the future. Guests include historian and preservationist Brent Leggs, law professor Martha Minow, librarian Dawn Wacek, and playwright V (formerly Eve Ensler).
Now Playing: Science for the People

#566 Is Your Gut Leaking?
This week we're busting the human gut wide open with Dr. Alessio Fasano from the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital. Join host Anika Hazra for our discussion separating fact from fiction on the controversial topic of leaky gut syndrome. We cover everything from what causes a leaky gut to interpreting the results of a gut microbiome test! Related links: Center for Celiac Research and Treatment website and their YouTube channel
Now Playing: Radiolab

The Third. A TED Talk.
Jad gives a TED talk about his life as a journalist and how Radiolab has evolved over the years. Here's how TED described it:How do you end a story? Host of Radiolab Jad Abumrad tells how his search for an answer led him home to the mountains of Tennessee, where he met an unexpected teacher: Dolly Parton.Jad Nicholas Abumrad is a Lebanese-American radio host, composer and producer. He is the founder of the syndicated public radio program Radiolab, which is broadcast on over 600 radio stations nationwide and is downloaded more than 120 million times a year as a podcast. He also created More Perfect, a podcast that tells the stories behind the Supreme Court's most famous decisions. And most recently, Dolly Parton's America, a nine-episode podcast exploring the life and times of the iconic country music star. Abumrad has received three Peabody Awards and was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2011.