Wildlife Research Wildlife Research Society
Ecology, management and conservation in natural and modified habitats

Detecting predation of a burrow-nesting seabird by two introduced predators, using stable isotopes, dietary analysis and experimental removals

Grant A. Harper
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University of Otago, PO Box 56, Dunedin, New Zealand. Present address: Department of Conservation, PO Box 743, Invercargill, New Zealand. Email: gharper@doc.govt.nz

Wildlife Research 34(6) 443-453 https://doi.org/10.1071/WR07037
Submitted: 23 March 2007  Accepted: 20 September 2007   Published: 2 November 2007


Burrowing seabirds are vulnerable to extirpation by introduced predators such as rats, but much evidence of predation is circumstantial. On Taukihepa, an island off southern New Zealand, two possible predators exist with sooty shearwaters (Puffinus griseus): the weka (Gallirallus australis), a large rail, and the ship rat (Rattus rattus), both introduced to the island. It was expected that chick predation would be principally by weka, the much larger of the two predators. To measure losses of sooty shearwater chicks to weka or rats, nests were monitored with burrow-scopes at six sites in the summers of 2003–04 and 2004–05. In three of the sites rats were removed on 4-ha grids by trapping. In the other three sites rats were not trapped. In addition, weka were removed from all six sites in 2005. Concurrent diet analysis of weka and rat stomachs was undertaken as well as stable isotopic analysis (δ13C, δ15N) of samples from rats and weka. These were compared with possible prey items including sooty shearwaters. Additional stable isotope samples were taken from Pacific rats (Rattus exulans), a small rat species present with weka and sooty shearwaters on nearby Moginui Island. Weka diet comprised ~40% of bird remains by volume and calculations using Isosource, an isotopic source portioning model, estimated sooty shearwaters contributed 59% (range: 15–71%) of weka diet during the sooty shearwater chick-raising period. Ship rats, in contrast, had very depleted δ13C isotope signatures compared with sooty shearwaters and bird remains contributed <9% of diet by volume, with Isosource calculations suggesting that ship rats consumed more passerine birds (mean: 30%; range 5–51%) than sooty shearwaters (mean 24%; range: 0–44%). In both summers, more chicks were lost on sites from which rats had been removed than on control sites. When weka were removed in 2005, fewer chicks were lost than in 2004 and significantly fewer weka-killed chicks were found on weka-removal sites than on non-removal sites. Weka were the principal predator of sooty shearwater chicks, depredating an estimated 9.9% of nests. Combining several techniques quantified the loss and identified the principal predator of a seabird in decline.


This work is a contribution from the Kia Mau Te Titi Mo Ake Tonu (Keep the Titi Forever) Research Project, funded by a Foundation of Research Science and Technology Post-Doctoral Fellowship (UOOX0232), the Command Oil Damage Restoration Fund, through Oikonos (USA) and Ka Mate Nga Kiore Committee. The Rakiura Titi Island Committee and Rakiura Titi Island Administering Body provided permission and guidance during the research. Many thanks to the volunteers from the Rakiura mutton-birding community and elsewhere who assisted and to the many island manu owners who permitted access and often assistance. Ron Bull deserves special thanks for allowing us to use his whare. South West Helicopters assisted with transport. The staff of the Kia Mau Te Titi Mo Ake Tonu (Keep the Titi Forever) Research Project were particularly helpful and great company. Many staff of the Zoology Department, University of Otago, also assisted. This research was carried out under the University of Otago Ethics approvals 102/02 and 85/04. Keith Hobson, Richard Holdaway and Mark Drever made useful comments on the manuscript.


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