Ecological research
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    Use of conspecific attraction to influence the breeding habitat selection of Whinchat – Master thesis

    General Outline

    © Marcel BurkhardtNot only environmental, but social factors as well, are highly likely to influence breeding habitat selection of whinchats. Individual whinchats may rely on the presence of conspecifics to select their breeding habitat (i.e., social attraction). Social attraction can be experimentally simulated and could help the whinchats to avoid the ecological trap of selecting early mown meadows as breeding habitat. Experimentally elicited social attraction may thus serve as a powerful conservation instrument to influence settlement and establishment. However, the role of social attraction in selecting breeding habitat remains unknown.The whinchat (Saxicola rubetra) is an endangered meadow-breeding songbird. Its Swiss populations are today mainly restricted to sub-alpine grassland managed at low intensity. The time of mowing is crucial for whinchats, because only late-cut meadows guarantee successful breeding. Early mowing, i.e. before hatching of the brood, can cause both brood loss and mortality of the females during incubation, resulting in a fast population decrease. The ongoing intensification of sub-alpine grasslands leads to more intensively cultivated and early mown meadows. Whinchats fall into an ecological trap by selecting them as breeding habitat: early mown meadows possess a vegetation structure still attractive to whinchats, but the time of mowing will make successful breeding impossible.

    The aim of this master thesis is to test whether an experimentally simulated presence of whinchats affects their breeding habitat selection, and how habitat selection is influenced by the interaction of experimentally elicited social attraction and other factors, such as habitat quality. The thesis is part of an applied research project of the Swiss Ornithological Institute evaluating the different possibilities and limitations of this method to influence breeding habitat selection as a conservation measure.


    The effect of social attraction on breeding habitat selection of whinchats is assessed by a field experiment providing both acoustic and visual cues (playback and/or dummy individuals) in a number of experimental plots. The whinchats’ reaction (presence, settlement, establishment, pairing, brood etc.) to the provided cues will be monitored. Different time of providing the cues will reveal if different target individuals exist within the population. The experimental design includes a gradient both in habitat quality and in distance to the source population to disentangle the interaction of social and environmental factors influencing habitat selection. The study area is located in the Lower Engadine, Switzerland. Accommodation in the study area is provided. Data analyses will be carried out in Sempach, Switzerland.


    Interest in conservation biology, behavioural and applied ecology; driving license; enjoying field work (whinchats start their day about 90 minutes before sunrise!) and exact experimental work; initiative and responsible personality. This master project should be started not later than February 2018.


    Schweizerische Vogelwarte
    6204 Sempach

    Dr. Matthias Vögeli
    ++41 41 462 97 53   

    Dr. Martin Grüebler
    ++41 41 462 97 22