One of the most deleterious invasive introduced predators worldwide is the domestic cat which has been found responsible for many island extinctions worldwide. Cats can live off both natural prey and garbage and can be a particularly serious threat to ground-nesting bird populations. Saba is an important location for the Red-billed Tropicbird, Phaethon aethereus and feral cats are thought to be the main reason for the low breeding success in the southern coastal colonies of this bird.
To make proper decisions in invasive predator management, information is needed on the effects of cat removal on the tropicbird breeding success and the possible resulting increase in egg predation by rats in the case of any “mesopredator release effects”. In this study we collected the first season of data needed to assess the effect of cat removal on the breeding success of the tropicbird on Saba. Two tropicbird nesting colonies (Great Level and Tent) were monitored in terms of egg and chick predation, under different net cat-removal intensities and the resulting survival was compared to survival prior to cat removal (as documented elsewhere).
In total, Saba Conservation Foundation removed 19 cats from the entire study area, of which eleven adult cats were removed from the Great Level colony and only six adult cats and two kittens were removed from the Tent colony. The gut contents of the 17 of these 19 feral cats consisted of natural prey (grasshoppers, rats, chickens, anoles and crickets), bait placed in the trap or even plant material. In the previous season 18 cats had already been removed (12 trapped, 6 shot) from the Great Level area.
During the period of September 2013 to May 2014, 46 occupied tropicbird nests were monitored, 27 at Tent, 15 at Great Level and 4 at Fort Bay. Fort Bay was not used in the data analysis. Egg-laying was documented in 34 of these nests. Observed egg failures were due to a variety of causes such as failure to hatch , broken eggs, including the breaking of an egg by an adult, and the disappearance of the whole nest due to heavy rainfall. Egg survival did not show a significant difference between the two colonies. In total 23 chicks were born, of which at least 15 died. Chick survival did show a significant difference between the two colonies, whereas prior to cat removal both had had zero chick survival. The breeding success of the tropicbirds and percentage of chicks fledged did appear to increase encouragingly in the breeding colony where cats had been more intensely culled (Great Level; 28 of initial 35 adult cats removed during two trapping seasons). The success on Great Level is notable, because in the breeding season of 2011/2012 the breeding success had been zero percent for several years.
Around the Tent colony only six adult cats were removed this season (total of 7 removed during two trapping seasons), which was insufficient to effectively increase breeding success in the tropicbird. A comparison of camera-trap densities showed that effective cat density at Tent by the end of trapping remained 4-5 times higher than at Great Level where 28 of the initial 35 adult cats had been removed. In total four black rats were observed on the camera traps but only appeared to be scavenging and no active egg predation was observed. These preliminary results suggest that cat removal seems to improve fledgling survival at no appreciable expense in terms of egg predation and that risks of any hypothetical “mesopredator release effects” are limited. Due to the low sample sizes in this first season, and natural fluctuations in breeding success which are normal in seabirds, clearly happenstance or other causative factors could equally explain the results obtained. Therefore, more definitive conclusions will depend on a more extensive and multi-year effort.
- Continue with and expand feral cat removal from the main tropicbird nesting colonies.
- Simultaneously monitor nesting success and fledgling survival to develop a more robust data set over a longer time-frame. With an expanded sample size, the benefits in terms of net fledgling survival and any risks of potential “mesopredator release effects” can be more firmly assessed.
- Many cats were documented to be wary of traps. Trapping was also very labour-intensive and entailed both trapping and handling stress. For these reasons additional, more effective yet humane methods (such as predator baiting or shooting) should be used. These methods have proven to be key to effective control of invasive predators worldwide.
As long as legislation and control of cat importation, keeping and sterilization remain less than strictly implemented and failsafe solutions remain wanting, we recommend to focus removal efforts towards key tropicbird nesting colonies shortly before or during the main nesting season each year.
This research was funded as part of the Wageningen University BO research program (BO-11-011. 05- 029) under project number 4308701028 (A Debrot, PI).