Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus) increased dramatically in North America during the 1990s, providing the opportunity to study the effects of an increase of a top predator on an existing predator-prey system. In Oneida Lake, New York, USA, Double-crested Cormorants were first observed nesting in 1984 and had increased to over 360 nesting pairs by 2000. Concomitant with this increase in piscivorous birds was a decrease in the adult walleye (Stizostedion vitreum) and yellow perch (Perca flavescens) populations. Analysis of a 40-yr data series shows higher mortality of subadults (age 1-2 yr perch and age 1-3 yr walleye) for both species in the 1990s compared to the previous three decades. Cormorant diet was investigated from 1995 to 2000 using a combination of cast pellets, regurgitants, and stomach analysis. Walleye and yellow perch were a major portion of the cormorant diet during these years (40-82% by number). The number of subadult walleye and yellow perch consumed by cormorants suggests that the increase in subadult mortality can be explained by predation from cormorants. Mean mortality rates of adult percids attributed to cormorant predation were 1.1% per year for walleye and 7.7% per year for yellow perch. Our analysis suggests that predation by cormorants on subadult percids is a major factor contributing to the decline in both the walleye and the yellow perch populations in Oneida Lake. Other ecosystem changes (zebra mussels, lower nutrient loading, decrease in alternate prey) are not likely explanations because the potential mechanisms involved are not consistent with auxiliary data from the lake and would not affect subadult mortality. The likely impact of bird predation on percid populations in Oneida Lake occurs because cormorants feed on larger fish that are beyond the size range where compensatory mechanisms are important.
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