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For many people — birdwatchers and backpackers alike — Kazakhstan is a destination that strikes the imagination. Formerly part of the Soviet Union, most of this undiscovered and huge country is covered by vast steppe grassland, semi-deserts and deserts. The steppes in particular, covered by carpets of wild tulips in spring, are of global significance: 10% of the world's remaining grasslands are in Kazakhstan alone. The winters on the steppe are harsh and cold, and the short spring quickly makes place for a scorching summer sun.

Many enigmatic bird species find their home in these flat and extreme landscapes: Demoiselle Crane, Pallid Harrier, Sociable Lapwing and Black Lark are sought-after rarities in Western Europe and make Kazakhstan a country that many birders would love to visit.


Male Black Lark (Maxim Koshkin).

On the Kazakh steppes, large-scale land-use and landscape changes could be observed after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Arable agriculture was abandoned on a large scale, and currently more than 7 million hectares of former wheat fields have been reconverted into steppe. Due to a collapse in domestic livestock numbers in times of economic hardship, and poaching to near extinction of natural grazers such as the Saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica), grazing patterns and intensity changed significantly on the steppes. Luckily, due to great conservation efforts by Kazakh NGOs and the government, the numbers of Saiga are increasing again, and with a growing economy the numbers of cattle and horses are recovering.

Grazing itself, but surprisingly also the presence of animal dung, has been shown to be a key factor determining suitable habitats for many steppe species. Only recently it was discovered that Sociable Lapwing and Black Lark especially have the peculiar habit of piling up animal dung in and around their nests. The use of dung in nests has only been observed in a few other bird species, and the reasons for this odd behaviour are largely unknown. Sociable Lapwings usually just place their clutches into dry dung piles, while Black Larks were even observed to carry horse dung to their nests to build walls and 'pavements' around them. As both species are declining (Sociable Lapwing is Critically Endangered) and their survival seems closely linked with the presence of domestic grazers, the study of the use of dung in nests becomes essential.

In spring 2013, an international team of researchers will be studying this behaviour on the steppes of Kazakhstan, mainly focusing on Black Larks. Black Larks are among the largest lark species (nearly the size of a Blackbird), the males being entirely black, except for some whitish fringes on the back in fresh plumage. They are restricted to the steppes of Kazakhstan, where the males also spend the winter, while the females migrate southwards. The birds breed in tall-vegetated steppe from mid-April onwards. Interestingly, sex ratios are strongly skewed and the males outnumber females by far, resulting in strong competition among males for females. During summer the diet consists of ground-dwelling insects, mainly grasshoppers and beetles.


Kazakh steppeland (Johannes Kamp).

So why would birds use dung in their nests? Several hypotheses have been formulated: the birds might use dung to attract prey (large invertebrates); to camouflage their nests with the smell of dung in order to distract predators; or perhaps to improve the microclimate in the nest during cold nights in early spring. A novel hypothesis suggests that dung might be used to avoid trampling: cattle tend not to step in their own dung and avoid dung-piles and hence might not step on Black Lark clutches. In 2013, survival of both Black Lark and Sociable Lapwing nests will be monitored throughout the season, and success related to the amount of dung at and around nests. Temperature loggers will be placed into nests to evaluate whether a large amount of dung has an impact on incubation patterns — perhaps using dung for insulation keeps the clutch warm and allows the female more time for foraging. Other hypotheses will be tested by estimating prey availability close to dung piles or predation rates of nests' dung. By experimentally letting a cattle herd graze through a field with dung piles and dummy eggs, the 'trampling' hypothesis will be tested.


Female Black Lark on nest (Johannes Kamp).

The Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity in Kazakhstan (ACBK), BirdLife partner in Kazakhstan, has been running a project on the globally threatened Sociable Lapwing since 2004 in close cooperation with the RSPB. This year a small research team from ACBK and the Universities of Münster (Germany) and Wageningen (The Netherlands) has formed specifically to study the use of dung by both Sociable Lapwings and Black Larks. Not only will there be tight cooperation with local conservationists, but also one or two Kazakh students will join the research team for their fieldwork. So far BOU, FAN-B and OSME have agreed to support the project; however, more funding is needed.

If you would like more information about this project or are willing to donate towards the conservation of Black Larks and other steppe wildlife in Kazakhstan, please contact the project coordinator, johannes.kamp@uni-muenster.de. During the fieldwork season, the team will share their findings, pictures and adventures on a blog: http://blacklarks.blogspot.com.

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Black Lark Black Lark
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The information in this article was believed correct at the time of writing. BirdGuides accepts no responsibility for errors, or for any consequences of acting on information in the article. The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily shared by BirdGuides Ltd.

hide section Reader comments (4)

#1
I take it there are no avian egg stealers. If you scattered nests of eggs round an English pasture they would be taken by crows or Jackdaws. The photo of the lark looks like UK horse dung. I guess the grasses are course and the dung dries quickly. UK wet cow plats would be a lot less amenable to collecting or nesting on. Grazing pressure here is much higher on many fields where I used to see lapwings nesting and stock eat pretty close to a plat especially if there are sheep included( that’s why before specialisation, you had a mixed flock with sheep, to stop grass getting rank near the cow droppings). So not much advantage in the habit developing here. Are there any ground predators that would smell out nests that the dung might help disguise, though the second picture the dung looks pretty old and weathered.
   andrew, 29/03/13 18:48Report inappropriate post Report 
#2
Hi Andrew, thanks for your comment. Predator densities are indeed much lower compared to the UK, but predation can account for significant losses in some years. According to results from nest cameras put near Sociable Lapwing nests, most of the clutches are however taken by mammals as you suggest, so ‘disguising’ nests by the smell of dung is an option we have thought of. Another idea is that the dung would increase camouflage of the nest/clutch in a lush green steppe in May and hence prevent detection by predators.
   Johannes Kamp, 29/03/13 21:17Report inappropriate post Report 
#3
Ahhhh, Black Lark - brings back memories.........
   Laurie Allan, 01/04/13 13:25Report inappropriate post Report 
#4
Dear all. It appears that Black Larks build dung pavements to discourage trampling and to regulate nest temperature! For more information: an article about this study has just been published in The Auk: Ornithological Advances. You can find it here: http://www.bioone.org/doi/10.1642/AUK-15-38.1 All the best, Thijs Fijen
   Thijs Fijen, 11/09/15 08:23Report inappropriate post Report 

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