Finding the Right Spot

January 1, 2008 by Gregory Gough

Small bird with black throat, blue head and back, and white belly.

When the tiny black-throated blue warbler arrives at its summer home in northern North America, it has to make a crucial decision: where to set up its nesting territory. If the habitat is good, food will be plentiful and the warbler has a better chance of surviving the season and raising a family.

But how does it know, when it arrives from its winter quarters in the Caribbean, where food will be plentiful several weeks later when its young have hatched?

Scientists at the Hubbard Brook Research Center in New Hampshire have been studying this common bird since the 1960s . The study site centers around a stream valley surrounded by the steep slopes of the nearby mountains.

Hubbard Brook study site in New Hampshire

The birds typically arrive in late April to a chilly landscape with the leaves just beginning to emerge. They promptly set up territories throughout the valley and on the slopes. By mid-June, most of the birds have decided that the best place to raise a family is in a dense stand of hobblebush (Viburnum alnifolium) halfway up the mountain slope. This shrub offers plenty of insects for food and is its large leaves and intricate, twining stems provide excellent places to hide a nest.

Black-throated blue warblers don't live very long—just a few years—so choosing the right spot to raise a family is a vital decision. By waiting to nest until they can tell where food and cover will be most abundant, the birds maximize their chance of survival and ability to reproduce.

This article summarizes the information in this scientific paper:

Dynamic occupancy models reveal within-breeding season movement up a habitat quality gradient by a migratory songbird. 2008. Matthew G. Betts, Nicholas L. Rodenhouse, T. Scott Sillett, Patrick J. Doran, and Richard T. Holmes. Ecography 31(5) 592–600.

Download scientific paper