Do ducks and songbirds initiate more nests when the probability of survival is greater?


  • Todd A. Grant United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Souris River Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex, 681 Salyer Road, Upham, North Dakota 58789
  • Terry L. Shaffer United States Geological Survey, Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, 8711 37th Street Southeast, Jamestown, North Dakota 58401



Grassland bird, nest survival, nest initiation, passerine, time-specific survival, waterfowl, Gadwall, Mallard, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Clay-colored Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Bobolink, North Dakota


Nesting chronology in grassland birds can vary by species, locality, and year. The date a nest is initiated can influence the subsequent probability of its survival in some grassland bird species. Because predation is the most significant cause of nest loss in grassland birds, we examined the relation between timing of nesting and nest survival. Periods of high nest survival that correspond with the peak of nesting activity might reflect long-term adaptations to specific predation pressures commonly recurring during certain periods of the nesting cycle. We evaluated this theory by comparing timing of nesting with date-specific nest survival rates for several duck and passerine species breeding in north-central North Dakota during 1998–2003. Nest survival decreased seasonally with date for five of the seven species we studied. We found little evidence to support consistent relations between timing of nesting, the number of nest initiations, and nest survival for any species we studied, suggesting that factors other than nest predation may better explain nesting chronology for these species. The apparent mismatch between date-specific patterns of nest survival and nest initiation underscores uncertainty about the process of avian nest site selection driven mainly by predation. Although timing of nesting differed among species, the general nesting period was fairly predictable across all years of study, suggesting the potential for research activities or management actions to be timed to take advantage of known periods when nests are active (or inactive). However, our results do not support the notion that biologists can take advantage of periods when many nests are active and survival is also high.