Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the abundance and distribution of many central Asian steppe birds have been affected by changes in agricultural land management, such as the abandonment of large areas of cropland and changing grazing patterns. However, the underlying population processes that drive patterns of abundance and distribution are poorly understood. We compared the population ecology of the Black Lark Melanocorypha yeltoniensis on natural steppe and abandoned cropland. Between 2009 and 2013, we used distance sampling to quantify Black Lark population density, monitored 220 nests to assess reproductive performance, and modelled habitat selection at several scales. Arthropod food availability was compared using pitfall traps. Mean population densities were three times higher on abandoned cropland compared to those in steppe, and varied with time since abandonment. Nest survival rates were significantly lower on abandoned cropland compared to steppe, probably due to higher predation pressure. Chick growth rates were also lower on abandoned cropland, despite higher insect availability in this habitat. Habitat selection was strongly influenced by grazing intensity and vegetation structure. We suggest that Black Larks are generally attracted to abandoned cropland because of its suitable vegetation structure and higher food availability. The results of a fecundity model suggested that the number of breeding attempts on abandoned cropland necessary to produce the same number of fledglings as one nesting attempt in steppe habitat was 2.04 in 2011 and 3.62 in 2013. However, a phenological analysis revealed that there were only two peaks in first egg dates, making more than two re-nesting attempts per year unlikely. Therefore, abandoned cropland could, at least in some years, be an ecological trap for the species. Our results illustrate that the effects of land-use change on animal populations should not only be assessed using species densities, but also incorporate detailed demographic analyses. If current densities in steppe habitat corresponded to maximum carrying capacity, overall population densities of Black Larks are likely to decline in the near future as availability of abandoned cropland as nesting habitat is currently decreasing.
Laméris, K., Fijen, T. P. M., Urazaliev, R., Pulikova, G., Donald, P. F., & Kamp, J. (2016). Breeding ecology of the endemic Black Lark Melanocorypha yeltoniensis on natural steppe and abandoned croplands in post-Soviet Kazakhstan. Biodiversity and Conservation, 25(12), 2381-2400. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10531-015-1041-2