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The effect of dairy farming on barn swallow Hirundo rustica abundance, distribution and reproduction

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Summary

• Recent changes in agricultural practice have been hypothesized to affect the abundance and reproductive success of farmland birds. The influence of dairy farming on barn swallows Hirundo rustica was investigated by comparison of their abundance, phenotype and reproduction on the same farms before and immediately after dairy farming ceased, while a control sample of farms without change in farming practice in the same years was used to check for temporal changes unrelated to farming practice.

• The abundance of barn swallows decreased significantly when dairy farming ceased, with an average reduction of 48%, while there was no significant difference in the sample of control farms. This was mainly due to a decrease in the abundance of yearling immigrants. The abundance of insect food measured with sweep nets decreased significantly in the absence of cattle, while there was no significant change in the sample of control farms.

• The mean phenotypes of adult barn swallows breeding on the same farms with and without dairy farming did not differ significantly for any of the 16 variables measured (11 morphological variables, body mass, parasite load, haematocrit, leucocyte counts, and arrival date), nor were there any significant differences recorded in the sample of control farms.

• The mean phenotypes of barn swallow nestlings on the same farms with and without dairy farming differed for tarsus length, body mass, haematocrit, leucocyte concentration and T-cell mediated immune response, with nestlings being of poorer quality in the absence of cattle. There was no significant differences recorded in the sample of control farms.

• Start of reproduction was not delayed in the absence of cattle, but size of first clutches was reduced by the absence of cattle. The frequency of second clutches decreased in the absence of cattle, and laying of second clutches was also delayed. Hatching, fledging and breeding success did not differ between the two types of farming practice. This led to an overall reduction in annual reproductive success in the absence of cattle. None of these significant differences was recorded in the sample of control farms.

• These observations suggest that termination of dairy farming reduces local population size, reproductive success and the quality of offspring produced. There is little evidence of the distribution of phenotypes of adult barn swallows being affected by the presence of cattle.
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Keywords: agricultural practice; body condition; clutch size; distribution of phenotypes; health; immune response; laying date; population size

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: April 1, 2001

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