Pulsed breeding of long-legged wading birds and the importance of infrequent severe drought conditions in the Florida Everglades


At the scale of ecosystems and regions, numbers of nesting long-legged wading birds are often highly variable from year to year, and much of this variation is thought to reflect variation in production or availability of prey animals in wetlands. Based on observations during and following a severe drought in the Florida Everglades (1989–1992), we predicted that large nesting events would be more likely immediately following droughts than at other times. Using a 38-year history of wading bird nesting events in the Florida Everglades, we tested the hypothesis that “supranormal” annual nesting events (numbers of nests textgreater1 standard deviation above the long-term mean) would occur more frequently during the period of up to two years after severe droughts (stages textless1 standard deviation below the mean) than after non-drought years. Within this database, we identified 8 supranormal events and 8 severe droughts; 7 of the nesting events occurred immediately after a drought, and 7 of the droughts were followed by a supranormal nesting event. There was a highly significant association between the two types of events. Because many studies suggest that wading bird reproduction is food-limited, this result implies that post-drought conditions somehow result in exceptional productivity and/or availability of small fishes and macroinvertebrates. We propose two biological mechanisms for this pattern and suggest that rare, severe droughts in the Everglades are a forcing function for wading bird population cycles and large-scale movements through the action of pulsed productivity in the aquatic food web.