We studied reproductive success, growth, and survival of Black-crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) and Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) chicks in two mixed-species heronries on marsh islands in Chincoteague Bay, Accomack County, Virginia in 1992 and 1993. We attached radio transmitters with mortality sensors to the oldest chicks (A-chicks) in 11 to 22 nests of both species to monitor survival during the mid-to late nestling period and into the post-nesting dispersal period. For both species, we found significant differences between 1992 and 1993 in growth rates and survival. Mass growth rates of chicks were higher in 1993 than in 1992 for both species. Culmen-length growth rates varied significantly due to year-colony effects for night-herons, but only for hatching order for egrets. Differences in survival rates due to hatching order were found for the egrets in both years, but were found only in 1992 for night-herons. As with mass growth rates, survival of chicks was higher in 1993 than 1992. Survival of radio-marked A-chicks did not differ between species or years for the period from hatching to fledging or from fledging through the end of the study (ca. two months post-fledging). Survival ranged from 0.90 to 1.00 from the time radio transmitters were attached (ca. two weeks of age) until dispersal age (53-55 days for egrets; 55-60 days for night-herons). After birds left the colony, survival rates were lower during the next 40 to 55 days, ranging from 0.25 to 0.60. These results suggest that, at least for Snowy Egrets, Achicks may be buffered from annual variations in food conditions, but that growth and survival of other brood members may provide a barometer of local conditions. Despite problems of variability in measurement, some of these parameters show promise as bioindicators of estuarine conditions. We recommend that a costefficient wading-bird monitoring program would include: (1) estimating numbers of nesting birds of selected species (e.g. Snowy Egrets) at particular estuaries, and (2) monitoring 'initial brood sizes' and survival of young to at least two weeks of age in a sample of nests for each focal species. However, additional biomonitoring (e.g. marsh forage fish, contaminant loads) is necessary to evaluate how well top trophic-level organisms such as fish-eating birds respond to changes in estuarine production or quality.
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Reproductive success, growth and survival of black-crowned night-heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) and snowy egret (Egretta thula) chicks in coastal Virginia