The key patch approach assumes that metapopulations in fragmented landscapes are likely to be viable with at least one "key" sub-population that is sufficiently large to ensure re-colonization of surrounding minor habitat patches. It is based on a minimum viable number of breeding pairs and within-breeding season dispersal distance, linked to size of the animal and longevity. It was tested using census data of 15 wetland bird species (bearded tit, bluethroat, great reed warbler, sedge warbler, Savi's warbler, grasshopper warbler, spotted crake, water rail, common snipe, common teal, garganey, little bittern, night heron, great bittern and marsh harrier) in 14 wetland complexes of variable size (3-55 km(2)) spread across the Netherlands (distances ranging 4-156 km). First, for each species it was assessed whether a wetland harbored a key subpopulation, which was the case for the sedge warbler (7 key subpopulations), grass-hopper warbler (2), water rail (2), bearded tit, bluethroat, Savi's warbler, common teal, garganey, great bittern and marsh harrier (all one key subpopulation).Together with the adjacent sub-populations present within breeding season dispersal distance, 10 out of the 15 studied species formed viable meta-populations. This was compared with the trend in the census data of 13 species for 1990-2000 and was found to correspond significantly (likelihood ratio test, P = 0.003): species without a viable meta-population had declined (2 out of 4) or remained stable (2 out of 4), whereas viable meta-populations had increased (6 out of 9) or remained comparatively stable (2 out of 9). One wetland complex, the Oostvaardersplassen, stood out in that it haboured key sub-populations for 9 out of the 15 species studied. Variation in quantity of specific habitat (area or perimeter marshland, woodland or open water) in a wetland complex was of limited importance explaining abundance patterns, since all covaried strongly with total area among the wetland complexes, with the exception of water perimeter. Apparently, these wetlands on peat harbour largely similar landscapes. Indeed, population sizes of most birds covaried strongly and in a PCA two distinct clusters of species were identified that shared high numbers of breeding pairs in the same, larger, wetland complexes, the first (3 species) including the great reed warbler, and the second (9 species) the water rail.
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