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Crop vegetation structure is more important than crop type in determining where Lesser Kestrels forage


We studied foraging habitat selection by Lesser Kestrel Falco naumanni throughout the breeding period in south-west Spain by means of transects on which foraging observations were recorded. We focused on the effects of habitat and crop type, but also on the effect of vegetation structure and the presence of agricultural activities in the field on Lesser Kestrel use. We considered both the accumulated use of the foraging area during the breeding season and the instantaneous foraging habitat selection by kestrels. Foraging habitat selection was highly dynamic following crop development and agricultural activities. Almost all major arable crop types showed positive selection during some part of the breeding cycle. Accumulated use by kestrels demonstrated positive associations with wheat and cotton fields and negative selection of permanent habitat types, such as forested areas, woody crops and built-up areas that have no prey or are not used by the species due to unfavourable structure. Vegetation structure appears to play a major role in instantaneous foraging selection. Lesser Kestrels select fields with short vegetation and intermediate cover. They also forage on field margins and where agricultural activities such as ploughing or harvesting that facilitate access to prey are being conducted. Our results help to clarify apparent controversies among previous studies on the subject, highlighting the importance of the heterogeneity of agricultural landscapes around colonies (crops at different growth stages which provide variable vegetation height and cover during the breeding cycle) and the effect that agricultural activities have on facilitating access to prey. Beyond the species-specific approach, our work encourages further studies on habitat selection by farmland birds to account not only for human-based categorisation of habitats (e.g. crop type) but also on objective measures such as vegetation height and cover that influence access to prey and better reflect the high dynamism of agricultural landscapes.

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