Intensified agricultural use of grasslands reduces growth and survival of precocial shorebird chicks.
Intensification of agricultural use of grassland habitats has been linked to the declines of many farmland bird species, several of whom have been in decline for multiple decades despite agri-environmental schemes. In the Netherlands, where most grasslands have been transformed into well-drained monocultures managed for maximal dairy production, schemes that aim to protect nests from agricultural activities are the most popular. The cause of the failure of these schemes, however, seems poor recruitment of farmland birds. Using the black-tailed godwit Limosa limosa limosa as our model species, we tested the hypothesis underlying the most popular agri-environmental schemes that there are no differences in condition at hatch, growth, and apparent survival rates between chicks raised on monocultures compared with chicks from herb-rich meadows with high water tables, often managed, for the sake of grassland birds, in traditional ways. We also compare the growth rates from both habitat types with those of chicks from dairy farmland from 1976 to 1985, a time when population declines of godwits first became visible. Hatchling mass did not differ between chicks from herb-rich meadows and grassland monocultures, but chicks hatched on monocultures were on average 14-16% lighter at fledging, and had 4% smaller bills than chicks hatched on herb-rich meadows. The growth rates of female chicks hatched on herb-rich meadows were similar to those of chicks measured from 1976 to 1985. Males fledged lighter and smaller than females. Apparent survival during the first year of life for chicks hatched on herb-rich meadows was 2.5 times higher than that of chicks hatched on grassland monocultures. The apparent survival on herb-rich meadows seems sufficient for a stable population. Synthesis and applications: We found striking differences between chicks hatched on modern grassland monocultures and herb-rich meadows. That chicks hatched on monocultures had lower growth and survival rates than chicks on meadows indicates that these chicks suffer a higher risk of starvation and/or predation. These findings imply that the most often applied agri-environmental schemes (i.e. payments per clutch found and postponed mowing), are not effective. Instead, these schemes could even encourage maladaptive habitat choice. Conservation efforts should thus focus on the provision of herb-rich meadows with high groundwater tables.