Graduate Theses & Dissertations

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Breeding Phenology and Migration Habits of Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) in the Hudson Bay Lowlands, Canada
Understanding breeding and migration habits of Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) in the Hudson Bay Lowlands is important for the conservation of this population. I monitored Whimbrel at two breeding sites: the Churchill region of Manitoba and Burntpoint, Ontario. Annual average nest initiation timing was highly variable and successful nests were initiated significantly earlier than those that failed. Although nests were initiated significantly earlier at Burntpoint than Churchill, annual nest success quantified in program R MARK was similar across sites. Observed nest success rates were lower than historical records and most failure was due to predation. Annual nest survival varied widely and I used a generalized linear model to relate annual nest survival to annual average weather conditions. I observed weak relationships between annual nest survival and weather conditions in the northbound staging grounds. I tracked post-breeding migratory movements using the MOTUS radio telemetry system and observed consistent use of the mid-Atlantic coast of the United States during migration, especially among birds emerging from Churchill. In Burntpoint, I observed more variability in post-breeding migratory trajectories and significantly earlier post-breeding departure as compared to Churchill. The results of my study suggest differences in breeding and migration habits exist across nearby breeding populations, indicating that there is a need for population-specific conservation approaches for this declining species. Author Keywords: Migration, Movement Ecology, Nesting Ecology, Nest Success, Shorebird conservation, Whimbrel
Environmental structure, morphology and spatial ecology of the five-lined skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) at high latitude range limits
Detecting relevant and meaningful patterns from the complex, interconnected network of relationships between organisms and their environment is a primary objective of ecology. Ecological patterns occur across multiple scales of space and time. In this dissertation, I examine aspects of environmental structure that influence a species’ distribution and are expressed in that species’ population dynamics. I compare the morphology of the five-lined skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) near its high latitude range limits with a lower latitude population and evaluate the economics of their behaviour in the context of its reproductive strategy. I tested the conformity of this species to biogeographical rules postulated by MacArthur, Bergmann, and Rensch. Spatial ecology was investigated in the context of the environmental potential for polygamy proposed by Emlen and Oring (1977) The five-lined skink, Plestiodon fasciatus, conformed to these biogeographic rules. Specifically, abiotic factors were the primary limiting factors affecting distribution at the high latitude range limits of the species; body size was larger in high latitude populations; and the degree of sexual size dimorphism was greater at high latitude than at low latitude. Spatial ecology at the individual scale was influenced by sites with suitable thermal conditions which facilitate the polygynandrous mating system documented in P. fasciatus in high latitude populations. My results confirm the importance of microsites with suitable thermal profiles as key habitat for ectothermic vertebrates at high latitudes. The influence of temperature as a limiting abiotic factor is expressed in population density, body size, spatial ecology, and reproductive strategy of P. fasciatus. Conservation and restoration of high latitude populations of ectothermic vertebrates should focus on ensuring thermal requirements of the species of concern are met before other factors are addressed, as temperature is likely the single most important limiting factor at high latitude range limits. Author Keywords: biogeography, lizard, Plestiodon fasciatus, range limits, sexual size dimorphism, spatial ecology
Shorebird Habitat Use and Foraging Ecology on Bulls Island, South Carolina During the Non-Breeding Season
Recent declines in North American shorebird populations could be linked to habitat loss on the non-breeding grounds. Sea-level rise and increased frequency of coastal storms are causing significant erosion of barrier islands, thereby threatening shorebirds who rely on shoreline habitats for foraging. I conducted shorebird surveys on Bulls Island, South Carolina in the winters of 2018 and 2019 and examined habitat selection and foraging behaviour in Dunlin (Calidris alpina), Sanderling (Calidris alba), Semipalmated Plovers (Charadrius semipalmatus), and Piping Plovers (Charadrius melodus). Area, tidal stage, and invertebrate prey availability were important determinants of shorebird abundance, behaviour, and distribution. My study highlights the importance of Bulls Island’s habitat heterogeneity to supporting a diverse community of non-breeding shorebirds. Considering both the high rate of erosion and the increased frequency of disturbance along the shoreline of the island, intertidal habitats should be monitored to predict negative effects of changes in habitat composition and area on non-breeding shorebirds. Author Keywords: foraging behaviour, habitat loss, habitat selection, invertebrate prey, non-breeding, shorebirds
Effects of Local, Landscape, and Temporal Variables on Bobolink Nest Survival in Southern Ontario
Populations of grassland birds, including the Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus), are experiencing steep declines due to losses of breeding habitat, land use changes, and agricultural practices. Understanding the variables affecting reproductive success can aid conservation of grassland species. I investigated 1) whether artificial nest experiments accurately estimate the impacts of cattle on the daily survival rate of Bobolink nests and 2) which local, landscape, and temporal variables affect daily survival rate of Bobolink nests in Southern Ontario. I replicated an artificial nest experiment performed in 2012 and 2015 to compare the daily survival rate of artificial and natural nests at multiple stocking rates (number of cattle × days × ha-1). I also monitored Bobolink nests and modeled daily survival rate using local variables (e.g., stocking rate, field use, patch area), landscape variables (e.g., percent forest within 2, 5, and 10 km), and temporal variables (e.g., year, date of season). Results indicate that artificial nest experiments using clay shooting targets overestimated the impacts of stocking rate on the daily survival rate of Bobolink nests. With natural nests, region (confounded by year and field use), stocking rate, and date of season were the strongest predictors of daily survival rate; with stocking rate and date of season both having a negative effect. Management should focus on conserving pastures with low stocking rates (< 40 cattle × days × ha-1), late-cut hayfields, fallow fields, and other grasslands to protect breeding grounds for the Bobolink and other declining grassland bird species. Author Keywords: Bobolink, Daily survival rate, landscape variables, local variables, Nest survival, temporal variables
role of corticosterone in breeding effort and reproductive success in tree swallows
Glucocorticoids (e.g., corticosterone (CORT)) are hypothesized to mediate decisions regarding reproductive investment during breeding, but the directionality of the relationship is not clear. The CORT-fitness hypothesis posits that high levels of CORT arise from challenging environmental conditions in which an individual will conserve resources for future reproduction or self-maintenance, and thus result in lower reproductive success (a negative relationship). In contrast, the CORT-adaptation hypothesis suggests that, during energetically demanding periods, CORT will mediate physiological or behavioural changes that result in increased reproductive investment and success (a positive relationship). Inconsistencies arise due to the various species and life-history stages studied, and the complex interactions between fitness and glucocorticoids. Using an experimental approach, I investigated the relationship between CORT and reproductive success by manipulating baseline CORT levels in female tree swallows Tachycineta bicolor prior to laying using silastic implants. Implants failed to raise CORT levels of females during either incubation or the nestling stage, and maternal treatment had no effect on indices of fitness at either stage. Using a correlative approach, partial support for the CORT-adaptation hypothesis was found: There was a positive relationship between CORT and hatching success. This only occurred when CORT was measured during incubation, when baseline CORT levels may stimulate increased reproductive effort and success. In contrast, during the nestling stage baseline CORT levels were not related to reproductive investment or success. Maternal CORT levels during incubation also did not influence nestling phenotype, although nestling stress CORT levels were higher in individuals that survived to fledging. In conclusion, CORT mediates reproductive effort and success during some breeding stages, but it is still unclear why this is the case and whether this same pattern will prevail in other contexts. Author Keywords: corticosterone, HPA axis, maternal effects, reproductive success, tree swallow
spatial and temporal distribution of tabanid (Chrysops, Hybomitra and Tabanus) species in the Nakina district of northwestern Ontario
This thesis focused on expanding knowledge of Hybomitra, Chrysops and Tabanus (Diptera: Tabanidae) distributions north of Lake Nipigon, Ontario, in a managed boreal forest. As land use and climate changes accelerate, there is increased pressure to increase knowledge from which to monitor changes. In 2011 and 2012, 8928 individuals representing, 44 species were captured using sweep netting. Major northward range extensions were observed for Chrysops shermani, C. aberrans and Tabanus fairchildi. Smaller range extensions and in-fills were observed for another 15 species. 23 species had exntensions to their previously known seasonal range. C. carbonarius was the only species that showed an extension to both sides of its season. In general, harvested stands had 50% more individuals and 30% greater species richness than younger stands. A possible link between stand age and interspecific competition was identified. Information has been provided to build baseline of species richness, relative abundance and distribution of Tabanid flies. Author Keywords: diptera, distribution, natural history, northern Ontario, species range, tabanid
Intra-seasonal Variation in Black Tern Nest-site Selection and Survival
Resources and risk are in constant flux and an organism’s ability to manage change may improve their likelihood of persistence. I examined intra-seasonal variation in nest-site selection and survival of a declining wetland bird, the Black Tern (Chlidonias niger surinamensis). I modelled nest site occupancy and survival of early and late-nesting birds as a function of static and dynamic factors. Early-nesting birds selected nest sites based on the degree and direction of habitat change that occurred over the nesting cycle, while late-nesting birds selected sites based on static conditions near the time of nest-site selection. Nest age had the strongest influence on daily survival rate for both early and late-nesting birds, but the shape of this relationship showed intra-seasonal differences. Additionally, early-season survival improved slightly with increasing vegetation coverage and distance between conspecific nests, while late-season survival increased with clutch size. My results suggest that intra-seasonal variation in nest-site selection and survival is driven by changing habitat conditions and predator behavior. Author Keywords: Black Tern, Chlidonias niger surinamensis, daily survival rate, intra-seasonal variation, nest-site selection
Impact of Agricultural Land Use on Bobolink Occurrence, Abundance, and Reproductive Success in an Alvar Landscape
Pastures and hayfields provide surrogate habitat for many declining grassland birds. Understanding agricultural land use dynamics and habitat quality can impact conservation of grassland species. I investigated 1) patterns of land use change in protected and unprotected sites in relationship to Bobolink occurrence in Carden, Ontario, Canada and 2) whether continuous grazing at lowmoderate cattle densities provided suitable breeding habitat, using both real and artificial nests. I replicated the 2001-2005 Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas to evaluate site habitat changes and Bobolink population trends. In continuously grazed pastures and late-cut hayfields, I monitored Bobolink abundance and reproductive success and modeled daily survival rate of nests using habitat management, vegetation structure, and prey availability. Results indicated that Bobolink have declined by -15.3% since 2001 in Carden; losses were explained almost entirely by changes from suitable breeding habitat (e.g. hayfields) to tilled land or by the colonization of shrubs. For pastures, stocking densities of ≤ 1Animal Units/ha did not negatively impact Bobolink. Year and caterpillar biomass, and vegetation height were the strongest predictors of nesting success in pastures and hayfields, respectively. Focus on the preservation of suitable habitat on the breeding grounds and management on small-scale beef farms can contribute to conservation action for this declining species. Author Keywords: agricultural management, avian ecology, Bobolink, continuous grazing, grassland birds, nest success
Using DNA Barcoding to Investigate the Diet and Food Supply of a Declining Aerial Insectivote, the Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)
Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) populations have declined in North America over the past 40 years and they are listed as Threatened in Ontario, Canada. Changes in the food supply have been hypothesized as a potential cause of this population decline. I used DNA barcoding to investigate the diet and food supply of Barn Swallows and to determine if the food supply affects their reproductive performance. In two breeding seasons, I monitored nests, collected fecal samples, and monitored prey availability by collecting insects from the habitat surrounding breeding sites using Malaise traps. I used DNA barcoding to identify insect specimens collected from the habitat and to identify prey items from Barn Swallow nestling fecal samples. I found that Barn Swallow nestlings were fed a very broad range of prey items but were fed larger prey items more frequently. Prey availability was not related to the timing of reproduction, the number of nests at a breeding site, or the reproductive output of individual nests. This study provides information on the diet composition of Barn Swallows in North America and suggests that food limitation during the breeding season may not be a major factor in their population decline. Author Keywords: aerial insectivore, diet, DNA barcoding, Hirundo rustica, metabarcoding, reproductive success
Using automated radio-telemetry to link food availability, reproductive success, and habitat use of Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica erythrogaster)
Drivers of North American Barn Swallow population declines are not well understood, but foraging habitat loss is thought to be a contributing factor. Determining patterns of habitat use is challenging for swallows because they move rapidly but are too small to carry GPS tags. We showed that automated radio-telemetry could be used to track the movements of swallows with enough accuracy (median error 250 m) to monitor local habitat use. We then combined information on breeding Barn Swallows habitat use, land cover, aerial insect abundance, and fledging success to test for a link between foraging habitat quality and reproductive success. Foraging activity was concentrated within 600 m of nest sites and varied with land cover; however, responses to land cover were not consistent across birds. Aerial insects were most abundant near wetlands and least abundant near open water and over cropland. Consistent with a link between foraging habitat and reproductive success, nests in barns with more wetland and less open water within 1 km, and with less field area within 2 km occupied by row crops, on average fledged more young swallows. Author Keywords: aerial insectivores, automated telemetry, habitat use, land cover, movement, nest success
Habitat use within and among roosts of chimney swifts (Chaetura pelagica)
Chimney swifts are listed as Threatened nationally and in many provinces within Canada due to rapid population declines. I examined large-scale spatial variation in the maximum size of chimney swift roosts at the northern edge of their range to identify where larger roosts occur. I used multi-sourced data collected across Ontario and Quebec between 1998 and 2013. I found that larger roosts were found at more northerly latitudes, and that very large roosts (>1000 birds) only occurred north of 45°. I also investigated fine-scale patterns of chimney swift positioning inside one of the largest roosts in Ontario. Using digitally recorded images, I calculated the angular position of swifts inside the roost relative to ambient and roost temperature. I found that swifts showed a strong preference for clinging to the south facing wall and clustered more when ambient air temperature was warmer. Thus, huddling in swifts provides additional or alternate benefits, other than serving purely to reduce costs of thermoregulation at low ambient temperatures. This research contributes to the understanding of chimney swift roosting ecology and identifies large roosting sites that should be retained for conservation. Author Keywords: chimney swift, communal roosting, conservation, group size, social thermoregulation, species-at-risk
Bank Swallow (Riparia riparia) Breeding in Aggregate Pits and Natural Habitats
I examined Bank Swallow (Riparia riparia) colony persistence and occupancy, in lakeshore, river and man-made aggregate pit habitat. Habitat persistence was highest on the lakeshore and lowest in aggregate pits, likely due to annual removal and relocation of aggregate resources. Bank Swallow colonies in aggregate pit sites were more likely to persist if a colony was larger or if burrows were located higher on the nesting face. I also compared nest productivity and health factors of Bank Swallows in lakeshore and aggregate pit habitats. While clutch size was the same in both habitat types, the number of fledglings from successfully hatched nests was significantly higher in aggregate pit sites than from lakeshore sites. Mass of fledgling Bank Swallows did not differ significantly between habitat types, however mass of adults from aggregate pits decreased significantly over the nesting season. Parasite loads on fledgling Bank Swallows were significantly lower in aggregate pits than in lakeshore sites. According to these indicators, aggregate pits appear to provide equivalent or higher quality habitat for Bank Swallows than the natural lakeshore sites, making them adequate and potentially key for this species’ recovery. Aggregate pit operators can manage for swallows by (1) creating longer, taller faces to attract birds and decrease predation, and (2) supplementing their habitat with water sources to encourage food availability. Author Keywords: Aerial insectivore, aggregate pits, Bank Swallow, colony persistence, ectoparasites, substitute habitat

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