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Nest characteristics, breeding dispersal, and nest defence behaviour of Northern Flickers in relation to nest predation



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I studied nest characteristics, breeding dispersal, and nest defence behaviour of Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus, hereafter flickers) in central interior British Columbia with respect to nest predation. My research focused on three questions: (1) Are there nest characteristics associated with the risk of nest predation and nest loss to European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris)? (2) Does nest predation influence breeding dispersal? (3) Do parental attributes influence nest defence behaviour? An examination of flicker nest-site characteristics at five spatial scales revealed that nests were safer from mammalian predators (N=81) when they were higher, concealed by vegetation, farther from continuous coniferous forest blocks, and contained fewer conifers within the nesting clump. Proximity to conifers increased predation risk, but nests safe from competitors (N=18) were closer to coniferous forest blocks and contained a higher percentage of conifers in the nesting clump. Flickers face a trade-off between being safe from predators and safe from competitors. Nesting success did not influence between-year breeding dispersal by 159 male or 76 female flickers. Because nests and forest clumps were not predictably safe from predators, benefits of dispersing likely outweigh costs. Other factors such as mate-switching, nest ectoparasites, and a fluctuating food source may play larger roles in dispersal than nest predation. Within years, 73% of pairs switched nest sites after their first attempt failed due to predation (N=37); however, there was no reproductive advantage for these pairs compared to pairs that remained at their original nest. Stressful encounters with predators involving nest defence may trigger dispersal, although it seems to offer no greater nest success. Of 24 flicker pairs presented with a control model before egg-laying, 3 pairs abandoned their nest, whereas 4 out of 24 pairs presented with a squirrel model abandoned their nest. This suggests that a one-time encounter with a nest predator is not a sufficient deterrent against continued nesting. Rather, costs of finding and excavating or renovating a new cavity may cause individuals to tolerate some risk in nesting at a location with an active predator. In experimental trials (N=94), intensity of nest defence behaviour against a model predator was not related to the sex, age, body size, and body condition of the defending adult(s). The sexes may have behaved similarly because they are similar in size and have similar survival patterns. Costs and benefits of nest defence for flickers of different ages may also be equal because flickers are relatively short-lived and their survival rate is not linked with age. Brood size of the defending adult was also unrelated to the intensity of nest defence. If flickers have adjusted their clutch size in relation to the number of young for which they can optimally provide care, then no effects of brood size on nest defence behaviour should be recorded, as was the case here.



cavity nester, predation, woodpecker, trade-off, competition



Master of Science (M.Sc.)






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