Breeding Ecology of the Mangrove Warbler

January 1, 2008 by Javier Salgado-Ortiz

Avian ecologists have long been interested in understanding the mechanisms that drive differences in life history traits, such as clutch size, between temperate and tropical birds.

Until now, however, advancing our understanding of these mechanisms has proceeded slowly, largely because we lack information on the demography and breeding ecology of tropical species.

Moreover, comparisons between tropical to temperate trends in life history traits typically fail to control for phylogenetic influences. In other words, we don't know whether similarities among birds living in either habitat are due to the birds being related or due to their sharing similar habitats.

Yellow Warbler, Ideal Study Species

Javier removing warbler from net
Javier is removing a mangrove warbler from a mist net so that it can be measured, and given a unique identifier (colored ankle bracelets) so its future movements can be followed.

The yellow warbler (Dendroica petechia) is an ideal species in which to tease this apart. Among the several yellow warbler subspecies are forms that are tropical residents and other forms that are long-distance migrants that breed in the temperate zone and winter in the tropics.

For my Ph. D. dissertation, I studied the breeding biology of the mangrove warbler (Dendroica petechia bryanti), a tropical subspecies of yellow warbler from southern Mexico.

My main objective was to describe the life history traits of the mangrove warbler and examine how they differ from those of its temperate relative, the yellow warbler.

Second, I examined how factors such as rainfall, food abundance, nest depredation, and habitat influence reproduction and patterns of habitat occupancy in the mangrove warbler.

I conducted my research over three consecutive years (2001-2003) at Celestn Biosphere Reserve in the Yucatan Peninsula.

Over the 3 years, we monitored the fate of 285 active nests—the largest number of nests ever found for a tropical population of the yellow warbler.


baby mangrove warbler

Results so far indicate that life history traits vary from temperate to tropical regions, providing a convincing case for the role that the tropical environment plays in driving the evolution of life history traits.

Life history traits of the mangrove warbler correspond to descriptions typical of tropical species.

Below is a table comparing life history traits of mangrove and yellow warblers:

Life History Traits Mangrove Warbler Yellow Warbler
Breeding season length3.5 months2.5 months
Bigamous male percent105 or less
Average clutch size3 eggs4.5 eggs
Average incubation time13 days11 days
Average brooding time11 days8.5 days
Depredation percent6530
Nesting success percent2655
Nesting attempts2?
Females double brooding percent51 or less
Cowbird parasitism percent840
Parental care percent4457
Adult survivorship6550

The tropical mangrove warblers benefit by having a longer season in which to breed, adults live longer, and cowbird parasitism is lower. The costs appear to be greater chance that the nest will be depredated. So, mangrove warblers respond by laying fewer eggs but spending more time incubating and brooding the young. If the nest fails, as often happens, the birds will often try nesting again.

For temperate yellow warblers a shorter breeding season means they tend to "put all their eggs in one basket", they have larger clutches, and quickly incubate and brood the youngsters. If the nest fails, they often don't have time to nest again.

With respect to the timing of breeding, the results indicate that in contrast to the traditional belief that rainfall is the main factor stimulating breeding in tropical birds, photoperiod is the main factor explaining when birds begin nesting while food availability may be used as a short-term cue to adjust the timing of breeding.

Bird pictures courtesy of Javier Salgado-Ortiz

This article summarizes the information in this scientific paper:

Salgado-Ortiz, Javier, Marra, Peter P., Sillett, Terence Scott and Robertson, Raleigh J. 2008. Breeding Ecology of the Mangrove Warbler (Dendroica petechia Bryanti) and Comparative Life History of the Yellow Warbler Subspecies Complex. The Auk, 125(2): 402-410.

Download scientific paper