Abstract: In southcentral Florida, where agricultural lands are being converted rapidly to urban development, much of the remaining nonurban habitat occurs on privately owned cattle ranches. We studied the Crested Caracara (Caracara cheriway), a threatened bird of prey, to learn the role of private lands in sustaining the population. We investigated patterns of distribution and reproductive activity of breeding pairs of caracaras in relation to patterns of land ownership and use. Eighty‐two percent of 73 active nest sites found were on privately owned cattle ranches. We rarely found breeding pairs on publicly owned lands, most of which are managed as natural areas (no agricultural production and limited livestock grazing) to support native plant and animal communities. In 46 breeding areas with 4 years of known histories of occupancy and reproduction, pairs nesting on lands where the major land use was cattle ranching exhibited higher rates of breeding‐area occupancy, attempted breeding during more years, initiated egg laying earlier, exhibited higher nesting success, and attempted a second brood after successfully fledging a first brood more often than pairs nesting on lands managed as natural areas. Compositional analysis suggested nonrandom selection of habitats by breeding pairs of caracaras in their establishment of a home range in the current landscape of southcentral Florida. Compared with random areas and available habitat in the overall study area, caracara home ranges had higher proportions of improved pasture and lower proportions of forest, woodland, oak scrub, and marsh. Which management activities favor and do not favor caracaras is uncertain, and hypotheses should be formulated and tested to guide future conservation applications. Particular grazing and fire management practices on privately and publicly owned lands may affect the structure of vegetation and prey communities in ways that influence caracaras. Or, replacement of native by exotic grasses may retain structurally suitable plant communities, whereas fertilization and grazing may increase productivity and nutrient cycling in ways that favor caracaras. Given continued conversion of natural habitats and agricultural lands to urban development, it is important to recognize that cattle ranches may provide important resources for wildlife conservation. Although cattle ranching is not likely to benefit all species historically associated with the native prairie ecosystem in Florida, finding ways to retain this land use may be important for the conservation of Florida's population of Crested Caracaras and other organisms of Florida's dry prairies.
Conservation Biology – Wiley
Published: Jun 7, 2001
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