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Proc Biol Sci. 2008 Oct 22;275(1649):2381-7. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2008.0473.

Demographic mechanism of a historical bird population collapse reconstructed using museum specimens.

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  • 1Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Conservation Science Group, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3EJ, UK.


Long-term studies of demographic rates provide clues about the external causes of animal population declines, but systematic monitoring is rarely in place until after the decline has occurred. This study evaluates alternative hypotheses about the demographic mechanisms underlying the historical collapse of corncrake (Crexcrex) populations in Britain and Ireland in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries using characteristics of museum specimens. The proportion of adult corncrakes that are 1-year old was estimated from feather characteristics of birds collected before, during and after the population decline and showed a marked transitory reduction during the decline. This pattern would be expected if the decline was caused by a large reduction in the recruitment of young birds to the breeding population and is the opposite of what would be expected if a change in adult survival had caused the decline. These results are consistent with previous suggestions that the corncrake population decline was caused by adverse effects on breeding productivity caused by the mechanization of the harvesting of hay crops.

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