Weather- and human-related shifts in feeding conditions promote the use of built-up areas by an avian opportunist
Abstract Human activities benefit a range of animal species, the resulting presence of which in cities can have negative societal consequences. One example are food subsidies, which buffer natural variation in food availability and allow these species to maintain larger populations. These buffers will likely gain importance under future environmental change whereby natural food sources become decreasingly available. To inform on the current importance of different habitats for a bird reliant on human-made food subsidies (Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus), and its possible population response toward changes in climate and the availability of these subsidies, we characterized population-level short-term responses to variation in drivers of local food availability, both natural (weather related) and anthropogenic (fisheries activity). We expected foraging effort to vary in relation to local wind speed and soil moisture, as well as to the alternation of fisheries activity between weekdays and weekends. Individuals were predicted to adjust their foraging habitat use in response to these environmentally driven variations in effort. To this end, we analyzed GPS tracking data of 45 breeding individuals, between 2013 and 2018, nesting in the Port of Zeebrugge, Belgium. Effort was approximated as the energy expenditure rate per trip, the daily time spent away from the colony and the trip frequency, which were analyzed by means of linear mixed effects models. Habitat use per trip was compared between marine, agricultural fields and built-up areas (cities, industry and cattle farms), in a multinomial logistic model. Marine areas and agricultural fields were most frequently exploited, but all considered stressors (wind, dry conditions and inactivity of fisheries) resulted in a higher use of built-up areas. Stronger winds increased the energetic cost of foraging at sea, and thus diminished the use of marine areas, as also did the inactivity of fisheries in weekends. Dry conditions diminished the use of fields and decreased trip frequency. Built-up areas thus constitute a buffer for the variation in food availability at sea and in agricultural fields. The expected increase in frequency and severity of extreme weather events (storms and drought) under global change, combined with the disappearance of discards, may therefore result in a long-term increase in the use of urban habitats by opportunistic large Gull species.