Reproductive failure of a human-tolerant species, the American kestrel, is associated with stress and human disturbance.

Published online
31 Jul 2013
Content type
Journal article
Journal title
Journal of Applied Ecology

Strasser, E. H. & Heath, J. A.
Contact email(s)

Publication language


The rapid increase of human activity in wild and developed areas presents novel challenges for wildlife. Some species may use human-dominated landscapes because of favourable resources (e.g. high prey availability along roadsides); however, use of these areas may increase exposure to anthropogenic stressors, such as human disturbance or noise, which can negatively affect reproduction or survival. In this case, human-dominated landscapes may act as an ecological trap. We evaluated whether American kestrel Falco sparverius reproductive failure was associated with human disturbance (traffic conditions and land development) or other common predictors of reproductive outcome, such as habitat and clutch initiation date. Also, we examined relationships among human disturbance, corticosterone (CORT) concentrations and nest abandonment to explore potential mechanisms for stress-induced reproductive failure. Twenty-six (36%) of 73 kestrel nesting attempts failed and 88% of failures occurred during incubation. Kestrels nesting in higher disturbance areas were 9.9 times more likely to fail than kestrels nesting in lower disturbance areas. Habitat and clutch initiation date did not explain reproductive outcome. Females in higher disturbance areas had higher CORT and were more likely to abandon nests than females in lower disturbance areas. There was no relationship between male CORT and disturbance or abandonment. Females spent more time incubating than males and may have had more exposure to anthropogenic stressors. Specifically, traffic noise may affect a cavity-nesting bird's perception of the outside environment by masking auditory cues. In response, incubating birds may perceive a greater predation risk, increase vigilance behaviour, decrease parental care, or both. Synthesis and applications. Proximity to large, busy roads and developed areas negatively affected kestrel reproduction by causing increased stress hormones that promoted nest abandonment. These results demonstrate that species presence in a human-dominated landscape does not necessarily indicate a tolerance for anthropogenic stressors. Managers should carefully consider or discourage projects that juxtapose favourable habitat conditions with areas of high human activity to decrease risk of ecological traps. Noise mitigation, while locally effective, may not protect widespread populations from the pervasive threat of traffic noise. Innovative engineering that decreases anthropogenic noise at its source is necessary.

Key words