Water depth influences survival and predator-specific patterns of nest loss in three secretive marsh bird species

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Wetlands have become increasingly rare in the United States, negatively influencing wetland-dependent birds, and many remaining wetlands are intensively managed through seasonal dewatering mimicking historic flood pulses during spring and summer. However, water around nests may provide protection from terrestrial predators, and lowering water levels during the breeding season of wetland birds may increase predation risk and exacerbate marsh bird population declines. Understanding interactions between water depth, nesting marsh birds, and nest predators is critical to aid managers in developing a multi-species management approach in emergent wetlands. During the 2020 and 2021 breeding seasons, we examined nest survival of 148 marsh bird nests (American Coot, Fulica americana, n = 1; Common Gallinule, Gallinula galeata, n = 64; and Least Bittern; Ixobrychus exilis, n = 83) and installed cameras at 78 nests to identify predators at a large, restored floodplain wetland in Illinois where the primary management technique is seasonal water removal to stimulate germination of moist soil plants. We found nest predation of, and abandonment by, Least Bittern and Common Gallinule were related to shallower water, and early season, high volume dewatering. Least Bitterns nested more commonly along wetland edges and nests farther from the shore were more likely to survive. Similarly, we found mammalian depredation of nests and nest abandonment decreased when deeper water was present around nests. Alternatively, snake predation was observed earlier in the year prior to water removal from inundated emergent vegetation. Our results demonstrate water depth may be an important deterrent of nest predators, especially mammals, during the breeding season. Further, we recommend managers delay dewatering until after the nesting season at sites where management for conservation-priority marsh birds is a focus.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere10823
JournalEcology and Evolution
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2023


  • marsh bird
  • nest predation
  • nest survival
  • water depth
  • wetland management

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation


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