Status of the Red Knot (Calidris Canutus Rufa) in the Western Hemisphere

Allan J. Baker, Amanda D. Dey, Brian A. Harrington, Carmen Espoz, Clive D. T. Minton, Danel E. Hernandez, Humphrey P. Sitters, Ines L. Serrano, Karen A. Bennett, Kathleen E. Clark, Kevin S. Kalasz, Lawrence J. Niles, Mark K. Peck, Nigel A. Clark, Patricia M. Gonzalez, Philip W. Atkinson, R. I. Guy Morrison, Ricardo N. Matus, Richard G. Lathrop, Robert A. Robinson, Roberto Carmona, and William Pitts
Publication Information
Studies in Avian Biology
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The population of the rufa subspecies of the Red Knot (Calidris canutus), which breeds in the central Canadian Arctic and mainly winters in Tierra del Fuego, has declined dramatically over the past 20 yr. Previously estimated at 100,000–150,000, the population now numbers 18,000–33,000 (18,000 if just the Tierra del Fuego birds are C. c. rufa, more if the Red Knots of uncertain subspecific status that winter in northern Brazil (7,500) or Florida (7,500) are also C. c. rufa). Counts show that the main Tierra del Fuego wintering population dropped from 67,546 in 1985 to 51,255 in 2000, 29,271 in 2002, 31,568 in 2004, but only 17,653 in 2005 and 17,211 in 2006.

Demographic studies covering 1994–2002 showed that the population decline over that period was related to a drop in annual adult survival from 85% during 1994–1998 to 56% during 1999–2001. Population models showed that if adult survival remained low, C. c. rufa would go extinct within about 10 yr. After 2002, the population held up in 2003–2004, but plunged again by nearly 50% in 2005 increasing the likelihood of extinction within the next decade. Despite intensive studies, the reasons for the population decline and reduced adult survival are imperfectly known.

During northward migration, most C. c. rufa stopover in Delaware Bay where they feed mainly on the eggs of horseshoe crabs (Limulus polyphemus) and lay down fat and protein reserves both to fuel the 3,000 km fl ight to the arctic breeding grounds and ensure their survival after they arrive at a time when food availability is often low. The crucial importance of Delaware Bay is demonstrated by studies that show that Red Knots with lower mass in Delaware Bay have lower survival than heavier birds and that from 1998–2002 the proportion of birds there at the end of May weighing more than the estimated departure mass of 180 g declined by >60%. This might be the result of the progressive failure of the food supply in Delaware Bay and/or a trend for birds to arrive there later and/or in poorer condition. In years when Red Knots experience reduced food availability and arrive late, the result may be an exacerbation of the effects of each of these deleterious factors.

The main identified threat to the C. c. rufa population is the reduced availability of horseshoe crabs eggs in Delaware Bay arising from elevated harvest of adult crabs for bait in the conch and eel fishing industries. Since 1990 the crab population has declined substantially. Although significant uncertainty regarding the extent of the decline of the horseshoe crab population remains, there is general agreement that horseshoe crab stocks have declined to a level where increased management of the fishery is necessary and appropriate. The decline in crabs has led to a decrease in the density of eggs available to shorebirds. Because of the crab’s delayed maturity, demographic models indicate that even if further exploitation of crabs ceases immediately, it will be some years before the horseshoe crab population recovers to its former level. Although clear evidence, as in 2003 and 2005, shows that the reduced availability of eggs is already having an impact in some years on the Red Knots ability to gain mass in Delaware Bay, it is likely that other threats to C. c. rufa exist and that these are the cause of some birds arriving in the bay late and/or in poor condition. It is not known what these are, but they could be related to Bahia Lomas, the main wintering site in Tierra del Fuego (because the largest reduction in recent years has occurred there and because northward migration from Bahia Lomas along the Atlantic coast of Argentina has taken place 1–2 wk later since year 2000).

If it is proved that something leads Red Knots to arrive late in Delaware Bay and/or in poor condition, this does not diminish the importance of the Delaware Bay food resource. If anything, it is increased because it is of critical importance in enabling the birds to recover quickly and reach the breeding grounds on time and in good reproductive condition.

Actions being taken to improve feeding conditions for Red Knots and other shorebirds in Delaware Bay include beach closures to prevent disturbance and exclosures to reduce competition from gulls. However, although these measures help, they are no substitute for a recovered horseshoe crab population. Actions to conserve horseshoe crabs have included reduced harvest quotas, more efficient use of crabs as bait, closure of the harvest in certain seasons and places and the designation of a sanctuary off the mouth of Delaware Bay. The latest information indicates that the crab population may have stabilized, but there is no evidence of recovery.



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