Recently it has been discovered that Black Larks, living on the Eurasian steppes in Kazakhstan, transport dung to their nests to build large 'pavements' . Weird and almost dirty behaviour, but what is the use of it? This spring a team of researchers from the Universities of Wageningen and M√ľnster and the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity in Kazakhstan (ACBK) will try to answer this question, doing fieldwork in the Korgalzhyn area in Kazakhstan. On this blog we will post on our findings and adventures.

The Project

Ongoing research on the Sociable Lapwing (Vanellus gregarius) in the Korgalzhyn area in Central Kazakhstan has recently discovered the use of dung piles to nest in. Also, research on other steppe restricted birds was carried out in the study area, mainly on larks. By doing so, it became apparent that Black Larks (Melanocorypha yeltoniensis) collect (mainly) horse dung and bring that to their nests.

Female Black Lark incubating on a nest with a large dung "pavement", well camouflaged. Maishukyr, Kazakhstan, May 2011 (Johannes Kamp).

Black Lark nest (under construction) built into a dung pile, but with many additional dung pieces that were brought to the nest by the female. Maishukyr, Kazakhstan, May 2011 (Ruslan Urazaliev).

The use of dung in bird nests is not new, however it has only been observed in a few species. It has been shown that dung can create a warmer microclimate in the nests of White Storks (Ciconia ciconia) and it has been hypothesised that it would increase insect abundance and thus prey availability next to nests. However, more reasons can be thought of. A novel hypothesis suggests that birds nest in dung or place dung around their nest to avoid trampling by cattle, sheep or horses as these large grazers would avoid to step into their own faeces. This project will investigate several hypotheses, and the knowledge gained will be used to improve the management of grazing for steppe biodiversity across the rapidly changing steppes.

Male Black Lark singing from a horse dung pile. Dung seems to play an important role during the entire live-cycle of this enigmatic species. Korgalzhyn, Kazakhstan, May 2006 (Maxim Koshkin).

Apart from bringing light into the ecological and evolutionary mechanisms in this behaviour, the research will increase the involvement and research capacity of biology students from ACBK's birdwatching clubs, who will support the team during the fieldwork.

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