Context . Introduced mammalian predators have been responsible for population declines in native prey species around the world. Many conservation programs rely on control or eradication of introduced mammalian predators, but the impact of environmental variation on the efficacy of this approach is rarely documented.
Aims . The present paper describes (1) the impact of introduced European foxes (Vulpes vulpes) on breeding Australian pelicans (Pelecanus conspicillatus) in South Australia and (2) the responses of both species to a fox-eradication program using a before-after-impact framework.
Methods . The impact of foxes on breeding Australian pelicans was studied on a near-shore island. An index of fox abundance and direct measurements of breeding pelicans and mortality of pelican eggs and young were compared before foxes were established on the island, while foxes were resident and during a fox-eradication program. A path analysis was used to explore the causal relationships between fox abundance and other potential covariates (e.g. rainfall) on breeding pelicans.
Key results . Before foxes were established on the island, the number of breeding pelicans grew and egg mortality was low. While foxes were resident, the number of breeding pelicans fell and egg mortality rose. This was followed by an increase in the number of breeding pelicans and a decrease in egg mortality during a fox-eradication program. While foxes had a clear impact on egg mortality, a period of low rainfall also occurred while foxes were resident. The path analysis showed an interaction among rainfall, size of the pelican breeding population and the impact of foxes. In drought years, fewer pelicans bred and foxes were a major cause of nest abandonment when they entered pelican breeding colonies to prey on eggs.
Conclusions . These results confirmed that foxes can be an important predator of ground-nesting, colonial waterbirds, and showed that the impact of foxes may be higher in drought years when prey populations are low.
Implications . The present study suggests that an increase in the incidence of droughts as a result of climate change may increase the impact of introduced predators on drought-sensitive waterbirds and raises the possibility of focussing predator-control efforts during droughts, as periods of particular risk to colony-breeding waterbirds.