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Time-specific Variation in Passerine Nest Survival: New Insights Into Old Questions

Todd A. Grant, Terry L. Shaffer, Elizabeth M. Madden, and Pamela J. Pietz


Abstract: Understanding nest survival is critical to bird conservation and to studies of avian life history. Nest survival likely varies with nest age and date, but until recently researchers had only limited tools to efficiently address those sources of variability. Beginning with Mayfield (1961), many researchers have averaged survival rates within time-specific categories (e.g. egg and nestling stages; early and late nesting dates). However, Mayfield's estimator assumes constant survival within categories, and violations of that assumption can lead to biased estimates. We used the logistic-exposure method to examine nest survival as a function of nest age and date in Clay-colored Sparrows (Spizella pallida) and Vesper Sparrows (Pooecetes gramineus) breeding in north-central North Dakota. Daily survival rates increased during egg laying, decreased during incubation to a low shortly after hatch, and then increased during brood rearing in both species. Variation in survival with nest age suggests that traditional categorical averaging using Mayfield's or similar methods would have been inappropriate for this study; similar variation may bias results of other studies. Nest survival also varied with date. For both species, survival was high during the peak of nest initiations in late May and early June and declined throughout the remainder of the nesting season. On the basis of our results, we encourage researchers to consider models of nest survival that involve continuous time-specific explanatory variables (e.g. nest age or date). We also encourage researchers to document nest age as precisely as possible (e.g. by candling eggs) to facilitate age-specific analyses. Models of nest survival that incorporate time-specific information may provide insights that are unavailable from averaged data. Determining time-specific patterns in nest survival may improve our understanding of predator-prey interactions, evolution of avian life histories, and aspects of population dynamics that are critical to bird conservation.

Key words: Clay-colored Sparrow, logistic exposure, nest survival, Pooecetes gramineus, Spizella pallida, Vesper Sparrow.

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This resource is based on the following resource (Northern Prairie Publication 1444):

Grant, Todd A., Terry L. Shaffer, Elizabeth M. Madden, and Pamela J. Pietz.  2005.  Time-specific variation in passerine nest survival: new insights for old questions.  Auk 122(2):661-672.

This resource should be cited as:

Grant, Todd A., Terry L. Shaffer, Elizabeth M. Madden, and Pamela J. Pietz.  2005.  Time-specific variation in passerine nest survival: new insights for old questions.  Auk 122(2):661-672.  Jamestown, ND: Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Online.  http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/birds/timespec/index.htm  (Version 24AUG2006).


Todd A. Grant, J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 681 Salyer Road, Upham, North Dakota 58789, USA.  E-mail: todd_grant@fws.gov
Terry L. Shaffer and Pamela J. Pietz, Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, U.S. Geological Survey, 8711 37th Street Southeast, Jamestown, North Dakota 58401, USA.
Elizabeth M. Madden, J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 681 Salyer Road, Upham, North Dakota 58789, USA.  Present address: Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 223 North Shore Road, Medicine Lake, Montana 59247, USA.

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