Habitat loss and large-scale climate phenomena are widely implicated as causing decline in animal populations. I examined how both factors contributed to a precipitous decline in an Ontario red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) population using 16 years of data collected between 1974 and 1995. The decline was manifested as an almost 50% reduction in mean harem size, which reduced the opportunity for sexual selection threefold. Regional hay production, which should affect recruitment into the study population, also declined substantially. Correlation between blackbirds and hay may be coincidental, however, because annual changes in harem size were not associated with annual changes in hay production. This study coincided with an unprecedented positive phase of the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO). Changes in harem size were correlated with winter NAO index values, suggesting that winter mortality contributed to the population decline. Positive correlation between harem size change and male return rates also supported the winter mortality hypothesis. Continued declines will cause this blackbird population to change from socially polygynous to socially monogamous. Study of red-winged blackbird winter ecology is needed to identify the proximate causes of mortality, whereas breeding studies can explore the consequences of relaxed sexual selection.
Territories mapped, color banded