Integrating advances in population and evolutionary ecology with conservation strategy through long-term studies of red-billed choughs

Jane Reid* (Corresponding Author), Eric M. Bignal, Sue Bignal, Davy I. McCracken, Sarah R. Fenn, Amanda E. Trask, Pat Monaghan

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)
12 Downloads (Pure)


Conceptual and methodological advances in population and evolutionary ecology are often pursued with the ambition that they will help identify demographic, ecological and genetic constraints on population growth rate (λ), and ultimately facilitate evidence-based conservation. However, such advances are often decoupled from conservation practice, impeding translation of scientific understanding into effective conservation, and of conservation-motivated research into wider conceptual understanding.

We summarise key outcomes from long-term studies of a red-billed chough (Pyrrhorcorax pyrrhocorax) population of conservation concern, where we pro-actively aimed to achieve the dual and interacting objectives of advancing population and evolutionary ecology and advancing effective conservation.

Estimation of means, variances and covariances in key vital rates from individual-based demographic data identified temporal and spatial variation in sub-adult survival as key constraints on λ, and simultaneously provided new insights into how vital rates can vary as functions of demographic structure, natal conditions and parental life-history.

Targeted analyses showed that first-year survival increased with prey abundance, implying that food limitation may constrain λ. First-year survival then decreased dramatically, threatening population viability and prompting emergency supplementary feeding interventions. Detailed evaluations suggested that the interventions successfully increased first-year survival in some years, and additionally increased adult survival and successful reproduction, thereby feeding back to inform intervention refinements and understanding of complex ecological constraints on λ.

Genetic analyses revealed novel evidence of expression of a lethal recessive allele, and demonstrated how critically small effective population size can arise, thereby increasing inbreeding and loss of genetic variation. Population viability analyses parameterised with all available demographic and genetic data showed how ecological and genetic constraints can interact to limit population viability, and identified ecological management as of primacy over genetic management to ensure short-term persistence of the focal population.

This case study demonstrates a full iteration through the sequence of primary science, evidence-based intervention, quantitative evaluation and feedback that is advocated in conservation science butstill infrequently achieved. It thereby illustrates how pure science advances informed conservation actions to ensure (short-term) stability of the target population, and how conservation-motivated analyses fed back to advance fundamental understanding of population processes.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)20-34
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Animal Ecology
Issue number1
Early online date7 Nov 2021
Publication statusPublished - 2022

Bibliographical note

The long-term study could not have been achieved without long-term support from numerous people, including Islay farmers and land-owners who facilitated access to nest sites and observation locations; all current and previous members of the Scottish Chough Forum; and NatureScot and RSPB (summarised in Appendix S2). We particularly thank Rae McKenzie of NatureScot, without whose enthusiasm and willingness to engage with apparently abstract ideas we would likely never have got beyond phase 1. Aspects of the work were funded by Natural Environment Research Council, NatureScot, University of Aberdeen, University of Glasgow, RSPB, Scottish Government’s Strategic Research Programme, Scotland’s Rural College, Killam Trusts and the Royal Society (details in Appendix S2). We thank David Jardine for his valuable contributions, and Rae McKenzie, Jess Shaw and Morven Laurie (NatureScot), and Jen Smart, Gillian Gilbert, Jack Fleming and Paul Walton (RSPB) for commenting on a manuscript draft.

Data Availability Statement

Additional supporting information may be found in the online version of the article at the publisher’s website.


  • Adaptive management
  • applied ecology
  • conservation genetics
  • demography
  • evidence-based conservation
  • long-term study
  • population growth rate
  • population viability analysis


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