Nesting birds must often cope with harassment from biting insects, but it is difficult to ascertain what effect such pests might have on breeding success and population dynamics. We tested the hypothesis that a black fly (Simulium annulus) that feeds on the blood of nesting Common Loons (Gavia immer) causes nest abandonment in this charismatic diving bird. In addition, we measured effects of fly-induced abandonment on a loon population, and examined potential predictors of fly abundance and nest abandonment. We also tested a second hypothesis, which holds that loon pairs that abandon a nest owing to flies should often remain at the site for their subsequent nesting attempt, since fly outbreaks last only 1–2 weeks. All predictions of the fly-induced abandonment hypothesis were supported, including strong correlations between fly counts and rate of abandonment, reduced incubation during severe fly years, and increased abandonment during cool springs, which promote longevity of the flies. The correlation between nest abandonment and population breeding success suggests that S. annulus reduced the chick fledging rate by as much as 23% in a year of severe infestation. Fly numbers on loons and their nests were highest when temperatures were high and winds were light. Surprisingly, however, exposure to the prevailing wind increased, not decreased, nest abandonment, perhaps because of wave action. Lake size was inversely and female age directly correlated with abandonment rate, possibly due to food limitation in small lakes and senescence of females, respectively. Finally, pairs that abandoned a first nest renested at the same site with much greater frequency than did pairs that lost eggs to a predator, indicating that loons are capable of responding adaptively to a cause of nest failure that is time- but not space-dependent.
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Vol. 135 • No. 3