Aspects of the ecology of African woolly-necked storks (Ciconia microscelis) in an anthropogenic changing landscape in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
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Urbanisation is the fastest-growing forms of anthropogenic land use change and a major threat to biodiversity worldwide. However, despite the negative impacts of urbanisation on native species, some species persist in urbanised environments and this thesis aimed to examine one such species, the African woolly-necked stork (Ciconia microscelis). African woolly-necked storks have recently colonised urbanised environments in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, and are now common in suburban areas in particular. Despite its proximity to human settlements and recent high abundance in suburban areas, knowledge of the African woolly-necked stork remains poorly documented in South Africa. Therefore, this thesis aimed to investigate the aspects of ecology of African woolly-necked storks within the suburban landscape to determine what factors facilitate their ability to persist in these environments. Firstly, I assessed the long-term trends in occupancy, colonisation and extinction of African woolly-necked storks as a function of change in land cover across KwaZulu-Natal Province, South Africa. This was accomplished by applying dynamic occupancy models to Counts in South Africa. African woolly-necked stork wetland occupancy was relatively stable (ψ = 0.37-0.39) across years. However, they rapidly extended their distribution range to urbanised environments, becoming common in man-made wetlands. Overall, this study found that the increased area of anthropogenic areas led to an increase in the probability of wetland colonisation by African woolly-necked storks. Secondly, I investigated the foraging opportunities that might be responsible for the recent colonisation of urbanised environment by African woolly-necked storks. I found that a significant number of householders (71%) deliberately fed African woolly-necked storks daily throughout the year and the majority provided meat while others fed inappropriate food such as bread. Furthermore, I found that, African woolly-necked storks were relatively habituated in urban areas of KwaZulu-Natal, with some even feeding from hand and others going inside homes to find the supplemental food. These results showed that the African woolly-necked stork is successfully utilising and exploiting anthropogenic food – a novel behaviour for this species. Thirdly, given that the selection of appropriate nest sites has major implications on reproduction success and survival of urban bird species, I was interested to determine if African woolly-necked storks bred in urbanised areas and, if so, which features of the nest site and surrounding habitat influenced their occupancy. I found 30 African woolly-necked stork nests in suburban areas of KwaZulu-Natal. African woolly-necked storks have successfully established breeding sites in suburban areas (mostly in domestic gardens), especially near swimming pools, while exotic pine (Pinus elliottii) and eucalyptus (Eucalyptus spp.) trees were the most preferred trees. Anthropogenic structures were also used as nesting sites suggesting a nesting behaviour shift. Lastly, after acquiring evidence that African woolly-necked storks successfully utilise anthropogenic food and have established a breeding population in urban areas, I was interested to know what food they provisioned to their nestlings. Furthermore, I investigated the breeding behaviour of African woolly-necked storks using direct observations and infrared camera traps during three breeding seasons (2015-2017). Although anthropogenic food was provided to nestlings, African woolly-necked storks provisioned their nestlings predominantly with natural food, primarily amphibians, particularly guttural toads (Amietophrynus gutturalis). African woolly-necked storks consistently reoccupied most nest sites across study years since initial discovery, suggesting that this population was at least stable. For the first time, I documented evidence of cooperative breeding where more than two adults provided care to a single nest. (Amietophrynus gutturalis). African woolly-necked storks consistently reoccupied most nest sites across study years since initial discovery, suggesting that this population was at least stable. For the first time, I documented evidence of cooperative breeding where more than two adults provided care to a single nest.