Direct and indirect effects of an insect outbreak increase the reproductive output for an avian insectivore and nest-cavity excavator, the red-breasted nuthatch Sitta canadensis

Andrea R. Norris, Kathy Martin

Published online: 
24 March 2014

Community-wide food pulses may ameliorate food constraints but may also result in increased competition for other resources and predation rates. In cavity-nesting vertebrate communities, where the availability of tree cavities can limit reproduction and the reuse of cavities can increase nest predation by squirrels, excavators may maximize their fecundity by creating new cavities in competitor- and predator-rich habitats that undergo food pulses. The reproductive cost associated with excavation (i.e. increased energy allocation early in the breeding season that often delays laying and thereby reduces clutch size), may be reduced if food pulses allow for a longer breeding season and larger clutches. A large-scale mountain pine beetle Dendroctonus ponderosae outbreak that occurred during our long-term study (1995–2009) provided a natural food supplementation experiment across 27 sites in British Columbia, Canada. We examined the effects of a reduction in food constraints accompanied with increases in excavation rates, conspecific density and nest predation risk on the fecundity of a facultative excavator, the red-breasted nuthatch Sitta canadensis. We found a total of 420 nests in tree cavities. Nuthatch clutch sizes ranged from two to nine eggs, and broods from one to nine fledglings per nest. Later clutches were larger at sites and in years with high beetle abundance (mean clutch size of six eggs did not decline later in the season), second broods were produced in outbreak years (usually only one nesting attempt/normal year), and the number of fledglings per successful nest increased with increasing beetle abundance and nuthatch densities, but declined with increased squirrel densities. Since fecundity did not differ between new and reused cavities, the costs and benefits of excavation versus cavity reuse may be neutralized for nuthatches during strong resource pulses. Overall, the beetle outbreak reduced food constraints for nuthatches and provided alternate food for nest predators, allowing increased annual fecundity.