Counterintuitively, after extreme droughts, wading birds flourish

GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- When rain brought an end to an intense drought in the Everglades a decade ago, wildlife biologist Peter Frederick thought there would be few wading birds left.

The white ibis and other birds spend their entire lives around water, foraging in it for fish and nesting in the grasses above it for protection against predators. To Frederick, a wading-bird expert at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, three years of bone-dry conditions would surely force the birds to fly to wetter places. Instead, he was shocked to note a surge in breeding pairs of white ibis, wood storks, snowy egrets and tricolor herons.

It was a classic case of scientists being caught with their pants down, Frederick said. We thought there would be nothing, and it was the biggest year in 25 years.

Frederick, a UF associate professor of wildlife ecology and conservation, now believes what happened in 1992 is only the latest instance of wading-bird surges that occur in the aftermath of severe droughts. In a paper in the December issue of the journal Wetlands, he and a colleague argue that these proliferations occur not only in the Everglades, but also worldwide among diverse wading bird populations.

The cause remains a mystery, but Frederick and co-author John Ogden, a biologist at the South Florida Water Management District, speculate it relates to how droughts affect the population dynamics of another water-dependent animal: fish.

Biologists have long been puzzled by large fluctuations in nesting wading birds from year to year, with one year experiencing thousands or tens of thousands more birds than the next, Frederick said. After the 1992 upsurge, he and Ogden decided to probe the mystery using Everglades climate and nesting records dating back decades.

They identified two spans of years, 1931-1946 and 1974-1998, when there were good records of consecutive years of nesting data. Within t

Contact: Peter Frederick
University of Florida

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