Wood ducks (Aix sponsa) and other species use tree cavities in forested wetlands and adjacent upland forests for nest sites and cover. The availability of tree cavities suitable for nesting is important to the population dynamics of hole-nesting species, but there is little quantitative information on how forest succession and maturation affect densities of suitable nest sites in eastern deciduous forests. Several studies have measured availability of tree cavities for nesting wood ducks, but data on cavity formation and persistence rates are needed to model changes in cavity abundance. We measured abundance and persistence of tree cavities suitable for nesting wood ducks in southern Illinois, USA, during 1993–2002. We simulated changes in abundance of nest cavities in the Mississippi River floodplain and adjacent upland forests using estimates of tree cavity densities by tree-diameter size classes and 10-year cavity persistence rates by tree species. Cavities were disproportionately common in the largest size classes, but tree species varied in their propensity to form cavities. Beech (Fagus grandifolia; 0.41 cavities/tree) and sycamore (Plantanus occidentalis; 0.50 cavities/tree) were prolific cavity producers, whereas a small proportion (0.05 cavities/tree) of cottonwoods (Populus deltoides) contained cavities. Kaplan–Meier estimates of annual and 10-year cavity persistence averaged 0.95 and 0.64, respectively. Cavity persistence also differed among species (P = 0.02): cottonwoods had the lowest (0.54) and sycamores had the highest (0.89) 10-year tree cavity persistence rates. Tree fall (50.0%), cavity floor deterioration (37.5%), and narrowing of the cavity entrance (12.5%) were the most prevalent causes of tree cavity loss. Forest stand projections indicated that cavity abundance will increase up to 34% over recent levels during the first 10 years and by 44% after 50 years. Most of this increase will be contributed by tree species that are not commonly used by wood ducks, but cavities will increase in oaks (Quercus spp.) and beeches as the forest matures into cavity-bearing size classes. Sycamores will steadily contribute cavities, but cottonwood is predicted to provide fewer cavities due to low survival of cavity-bearing size classes. Our results suggest that availability of nest and den sites for cavity-dependent wildlife will increase as eastern deciduous forests mature over the next half century. Cost-effectiveness of artificial nest box programs should be reevaluated in light of projected changes in tree cavity availability as deciduous forests mature in the eastern United States.
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Vol. 71 • No. 3