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Effect of nest characteristics on thermal properties, clutch size, and reproductive performance for an open-cup nesting songbird


Michael E. Akresh
Daniel R. Ardia



Publication type:

Scientific Journal (JRNL)

Primary Station(s):

Northern Research Station


Avian Biology Research


Maintaining avian eggs and young at optimum temperatures for development can increase hatching success and nestling condition, but this maintenance requires parental energetic demands. Bird nests, which often provide a structure to safely hold the eggs and nestlings and protect them from predators, can additionally be designed to help maintain eggs' optimum temperatures by minimising heat loss, especially in climates where eggs cool rapidly when unattended. We collected and measured Prairie Warbler (Setophaga discolor) nests in western Massachusetts, U.S. in 2009 and conducted a climate-controlled, nest-cooling experiment to determine how nest characteristics affect thermal properties for small, open-cup nesting birds. We then assessed if nests with better insulation properties resulted in any fitness benefits, and also tested if nest structural characteristics affected birds' fitness. We found that nest characteristics influenced their thermal properties, with thicker, heavier, and larger nests having slower cooling rates and higher predicted equilibrium egg temperatures. Both nest cup depth and clutch size significantly declined over the breeding season, and we observed a trend, although non-significant, that nests with shallower cups had smaller clutches. Contrary to studies on cavitynesting birds, we found no significant effects of nest thermal properties or nest structure on hatching and fledging success, nestling condition, brood parasitism, or nest survival. Prairie Warblers in our study site may already be adapted to build nests within a range that maximises their fitness. Furthermore, studies have shown that open-cup nests of other species are relatively thicker and more insulated in colder environments at higher latitudes than our study. Instead of building nests to solely minimise heat loss, open-cup nesting birds in temperate climates may also be driven by opposing selection pressures when building their nests, such as to prevent nestlings from overheating during hot days.


Akresh, Michael E.; Ardia, Daniel R.; King, David I. 2017. Effect of nest characteristics on thermal properties, clutch size, and reproductive performance for an open-cup nesting songbird. Avian Biology Research. 10(2): 107-118.


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