Secondhand homes: Woodpecker cavity location and structure influences secondary nester's success
Authors: Faith O. Hardin, Samantha Leivers, Jacquelyn K. Grace, David M. Cairns, Tyler Campbell, Brian Pierce, Michael L. Morrison
Understanding how ecosystem engineers influence other organisms has long been a goal of ecologists. Woodpeckers select nesting sites with high food availability and will excavate and then abandon multiple cavities through their lifetime. These cavities are crucial to secondary cavity nesting birds (SCB) that are otherwise limited by the availability of naturally occurring cavities.
Our study examined the role food resources have on the nest site location and home range size of woodpeckers, and the respective influence woodpeckers and the construction of cavities have on the nesting success of SCB.
Using five years of avian point count data to locate golden-fronted woodpeckers (GFWO: Melanerpes aurifrons), we correlated insect availability with GFWO home range size and determined differences in insect availability between GFWO occupied and unoccupied sites, while recording nesting success (success: ≥ 1 fledgling) for the GFWO and common SCB in south Texas: Black-crested Titmouse (Baeolophus atricristatus), Ash-throated Flycatcher (Myiarchus cinerascens), Brown-crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus tyrannulus), and Bewick’s Wren (Thryomanes bewickii). We used model averaging to fit species-specific logistic regression models to predict nest success based on cavity metrics across all species.
Sites occupied by GFWO had a higher biomass of insects in orders Coleoptera, Hymenoptera, and Orthoptera than unoccupied sites, and there was a negative correlation between the availability of these insect orders and home-range size. GFWO had increased nest success in trees with increased vegetation cover and lower levels of decay, while
SCB had higher levels of nesting success in abandoned GFWO cavities opposed to naturally occurring ones, and in trees with low decay.
Our results suggest that SCB may be drawn to nest in abandoned woodpecker cavities where they have higher rates of nest success compared to natural cavities. Additionally, the prevalence for GFWO to excavate cavities in trees with lower levels of decay contradicts previous literature and may indicate a novel temperature trade-off, with live trees requiring more energy to excavate, but providing more protection from high breeding season temperatures in arid and semi-arid areas.
Hardin, F.O., S. Leivers, J.K. Grace, D.M. Cairns, T. Campbell, B.L. Pierce, and M.L. Morrison. 2020. Secondhand homes: Woodpecker cavity location and structure influences secondary nester’s success. bioRxiv. (submitted)