Human disturbance during early life impairs nestling growth in birds inhabiting a nature recreation area

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Nature recreation conflicts with conservation, but its impacts on wildlife are not fully understood. Where recreation is not regulated, visitors to natural areas may gather in large numbers on weekends and holidays. This may increase variance in fitness in wild populations, if individuals whose critical life cycle stages coincide with periods of high human disturbance are at a disadvantage. We studied nestling development of blue tits (Cyanistes caeruleus) in a natural area where recreation activities intensify during weekends and other public holidays at picnic and leisure facilities, but not in the surrounding woods. In nests located near recreation facilities, blue tit nestlings that hatched during holidays developed slowly, and fledged with low body mass and poor body condition. However, nestlings that hatched outside of holidays and weekends in these nest boxes developed normally, eventually attaining similar phenotypes as those hatching in the surrounding woods. Within-brood variance in body mass was also higher in broods that began growing during holidays in disturbed areas. Our results show that early disturbance events may have negative consequences for wild birds if they overlap with critical stages of development, unveiling otherwise cryptic impacts of human activities. These new findings may help managers better regulate nature recreation.
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