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Good prospects: High-resolution telemetry data suggests novel brood-site selection behavior in waterfowl

May 17, 2020

Breeding success should increase with prior knowledge of the surrounding environment, which is dependent upon an animal’s ability to evaluate habitat. Prospecting for nesting locations and migratory stop-over sites are well-established behaviors among bird species. We assessed whether ducks in Suisun Marsh, California, USA, a brackish marsh, prospect for suitable wetlands in the week prior to brooding. K-means cluster analyses grouped 29 mallard and gadwall hens into 3 groups. One group (n=13) demonstrated evidence of brood site prospecting with fewest and latest pre-brooding wetland visits. Of these hens, seven visited their future brood pond an average of 1.14 times and only shortly before brooding (1.29 days), obtaining current information on habitat suitability. For the remaining 6 hens, we did not detect a brooding wetland visit which may be due to data limitations or the need to prospect the specific brood pond was precluded by having acquired sufficient familiarity with the wetland habitat during nest breaks in adjacent wetlands. The second identified group of hens (n=11) visited the brooding wetland most frequently (on 4.55 days), farther in advance (5.27 days), with the fewest unique wetland visits and the earliest brooding date (May 26). The final group of hens (n=5) were the latest to brood (Jun 21) and visited the most wetlands, possibly due to less water or more broods present across the landscape. Brood ponds were always farther from the nest than the nearest ponds indicating that habitat suitability or presence of conspecifics is more important to brood-site selection. Prospecting provides hens with knowledge about current habitat conditions and allows them to ‘crowdsource’ public information regarding use of that habitat by other brooding hens. Prospecting may therefore, benefit ducks inhabiting ephemeral habitats like those within Suisun Marsh, where brood habitat is limited, and water cover changes rapidly during the breeding season.