Mammalian predation is a major cause of mortality for breeding waterfowl in the U.S. Northern Great Plains, and yet we know little about the selection of prairie habitats by predators or how this influences nest success in grassland nesting cover. We selected 2 41.4-km2 study areas in both 1996 and 1997 in North Dakota, USA, with contrasting compositions of perennial grassland. A study area contained either 15-20% perennial grassland (Low Grassland Composition [LGC]) or 45-55% perennial grassland (High Grassland Composition [HGC]). We used radiotelemetry to investigate the selection of 9 landscape cover types by red fox (Vulpes vulpes) and striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis), while simultaneously recording duck nest success within planted cover. The cover types included the edge and core areas of planted cover, wetland edges within planted cover or surrounded by cropland, pastureland, hayland, cropland, roads, and miscellaneous cover types. Striped skunks selected wetland edges surrounded by agriculture over all other cover types in LGC landscapes (P-values for all pairwise comparisons were <0.05). Striped skunks also selected wetland edges surrounded by agriculture over all other cover types in HGC landscapes (P < 0.05), except for wetland edges within planted cover (P = 0.12). Red foxes selected the edge and core areas of planted cover, as well as wetland edges within planted cover in LGC landscapes (i.e., they were attracted to the more isolated patches of planted cover). However, in HGC landscapes, red foxes did not select interior areas of planted cover (i.e., core areas of planted cover and wetland edges in planted cover) as frequently as edges of planted cover (P < 0.05). Red foxes selected core areas of planted cover more frequently in LGC than in HGC landscapes (P < 0.05) and selected pastureland more frequently in HGC than in LGC landscapes (P < 0.05). Furthermore, red foxes selected the isolated patches of planted cover more than pastureland in LGC landscapes (P < 0.05). Duck nest success was greater in HGC landscapes than in LGC landscapes for planted-cover core (P < 0.0001), planted-cover edge (P < 0.001) and planted cover-wetland edge (P < 0.001). Both the increased amount of planted-cover core area and the increased pastureland selection in HGC landscapes may have diluted predator foraging efficiency in the interior areas of planted cover and contributed to higher nest success in HGC landscapes. Our observations of predator cover-type selection not only support the restoration and management of large blocks of grassland but also indicate the influence of alternative cover types for mitigating nest predation in the Prairie Pothole Region.
Additional publication details
Predator selection of prairie landscape features and its relation to duck nest success