Stochastic Variation in Avian Survival Rates: Life-History Predictions, Population Consequences, and the Potential Responses to Human Perturbations and Climate Change


Stochastic variation in survival rates is expected to decrease long-term population growth rates. This expectation influences both life-history theory and the conservation of species. From this expectation, Pfister (1998) developed the important life-history prediction that natural selection will have minimized variability in those elements of the annual life cycle (such as adult survival rate) with high sensitivity. This prediction has not been rigorously evaluated for bird populations, in part due to statistical difficulties related to variance estimation. I here overcome these difficulties, and in an analysis of 62 populations, I confirm her prediction by showing a negative relationship between the proportional sensitivity (elasticity) of adult survival and the proportional variance (CV) of adult survival. However, several species deviated significantly from this expectation, with more process variance in survival than predicted. For instance, projecting the magnitude of process variance in annual survival for American redstarts (Setophaga ruticilla) for 25 years resulted in a 44% decline in abundance without assuming any change in mean survival rate. For most of these species with high process variance, recent changes in harvest, habitats, or changes in climate patterns are the likely sources of environmental variability causing this variability in survival. Because of climate change, environmental variability is increasing on regional and global scales, which is expected to increase stochasticity in vital rates of species. Increased stochasticity in survival will depress population growth rates, and this result will magnify the conservation challenges we face.


Adult survival Elasticity Fitness Life history Process variance Sensitivity Stochasticity Trade-off 


  1. Alisauskas RT, Drake KL, Slattery SM, Kellett DK (2006) Neckbands, harvest, and survival of Ross’s geese from Canada’s central Arctic. Journal of Wildlife Management 70:89–100.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Alley R, and 33 others (2007) Climate change 2007: the physical science basis. Contribution of working group I to the fourth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. .
  3. Awkerman JA, Huyvaert KP, Mangel J, Alfaro Shiguetoc J, Anderson DJ (2006) Incidental and intentional catch threatens Galapagos waved albatross. Biological Conservation 133:483–489.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Barbraud C, Weimerskirch H (2001) Emperor penguins and climate change. Nature 411:183–185.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Barbraud C, Weimerskirch H (2005) Environmental conditions and breeding experience affect costs of reproduction in blue petrels. Ecology 86:682–692.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Beadell JS, Schreiber EA, Schreiber RW, Schenk GA, Doherty PF (2003) Survival of brown boobies (Sula leucogaster) at Johnston Atoll: a long-term study. Auk 120: 811–817.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Boyce MS, Haridas CV, Lee CT, NCEAS Stochastic Demography Working Group (2006) Demography in an increasingly variable world. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 21:141–148.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bradshaw WE, Holzapfel CM (2006) Evolutionary response to rapid climate change. Science 312:1477–1478.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Brouwer L, Richardson DS, Eikenaar C, Komdeur J (2006) The role of group size and environmental factors on survival in a cooperatively breeding tropical passerine. Journal of Animal Ecology 75:1321–1329.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Burnham KP, Anderson DR (2002) Model selection and multimodel inference: a practical information-theoretic approach. Second edition. Springer, New York, USA.Google Scholar
  11. Burnham KP, Anderson DR, White GC, Brownie C, Pollock KH (1987) Design and analysis methods for fish survival experiments based on release-recapture. American Fisheries Society Monograph 5.Google Scholar
  12. Burnham KP, White GC (2002) Evaluation of some random effects methodology applicable to bird ringing data. Journal of Applied Statistics 29:245–264.CrossRefMATHMathSciNetGoogle Scholar
  13. Calvert AM, Gauthier G (2005) Effects of exceptional conservation measures on survival and seasonal hunting mortality in greater snow geese. Journal of Applied Ecology 42:442–452.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Caswell H (2001) Matrix population models: construction, analysis, and interpretation. Second edition. Sinauer Associates, Inc., Sunderland, Massachusetts, USA.Google Scholar
  15. Chastel O, Weimerskirch H, Jouventin P (1993) High annual variability in reproductive success and survival of an Antarctic seabird, the snow petrel Pagodroma nivea. Oecologia 94:278–285.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Clutton-Brock TH (1988) Reproductive success. Pages 472–486 in Reproductive success: studies of individual variation in contrasting breeding systems. Chicago University Press, Chicago, Illinois, USA.Google Scholar
  17. Coulson JC (2002) Why do adult kittiwakes survive so long but breed so poorly in the Pacific. Journal of Avian Biology 33:111–112.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Coulson TJ, Gaillard J-M, Festa-Bianchet M. (2005) Decomposing the variation in population growth into contributions from multiple demographic rates. Journal of Animal Ecology 74:789–801.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. DeSante DF, Burton KM, Saracco JF, Walker BL (1995) Productivity indices and survival rate estimates from MAPS, a continent-wide programme of constant-effort mist-netting in North America. Journal of Applied Statistics 22:935–947.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Doak DF, Morris WF, Pfister C, Kendall BE, Bruna EM (2005) Correctly estimating how environmental stochasticity influences fitness and population growth. American Naturalist 166: E14–E21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Doherty PF, Schreiber EA, Nichols JD, Hines JE, Link WA, Schenk GA, Schreiber RW (2004) Testing life history predictions in a long-lived seabird: a population matrix approach with improved parameter estimation. Oikos 105:606–618.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Drummond BA (2006) Biological monitoring in the central Aleutian Islands, Alaska in 2006: summary appendices. United States Fish and Wildlife Service Report, AMNWR 06/06. Adak, Alaska.Google Scholar
  23. Dugger KM, Faaborg J, Arendt WJ, Hobson KA (2004) Understanding survival and abundance of overwintering warblers: does rainfall matter? Condor 106:744–760.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Easterling DR, Meehl GA, Parmesan C, Changnon SA, Karl TR, Mearns LO (2000) Climate extremes: observations, modeling, and impacts. Science 289:2068–2074.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Emanuel K (2005) Increasing destructiveness of tropical cyclones over the past 30 years. Nature 436:686–688.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Frederiksen M, Bregnballe T (2000) Evidence for density-dependent survival in adult cormorants from a combined analysis of recoveries and resightings. Journal of Animal Ecology 69: 737–752.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Frederiksen M, Harris MP, Wanless S (2005) Inter-population variation in demographic parameters: a neglected subject? Oikos 111:209–214.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Frederiksen M, Hearn RD, Mitchell C, Sigfusson A, Swann RL, Fox AD (2004a) The dynamics of hunted Icelandic goose populations: a reassessment of the evidence. Journal of Applied Ecology 41:315–334.Google Scholar
  29. Frederiksen M, Wanless S, Harris MP, Rothery P, Wilson LJ (2004b) The role of industrial fisheries and oceanographic change in the decline of North Sea black-legged kittiwakes. Journal of Applied Ecology 41:1129–1139.Google Scholar
  30. Fretwell SD, Lucas HL (1970) On territorial behavior and other factors influencing habitat distribution in birds. I. Theoretical development. Acta Biotheoretica 19:16–36.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Gilbert G, Tyler GA, Smith KW (2002) Local annual survival of booming male great bittern Botaurus stellaris in Britain, in the period 1990–1999. Ibis 144:51–61.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Gaillard J-M, Yoccoz NG, Lebreton J-D, Bonenfant C, Devillard S, Loison A, Pontier D, Allaine D (2005) Generation time: a reliable metric to measure life-history variation among mammalian populations. American Naturalist 166:119–123.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Gaillard J-M, Yoccoz NG (2003) Temporal variation in survival of mammals: a case of environmental canalization? Ecology 84:3294–3306.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Gillespie J (1974) Natural selection for within-generation variance in offspring number. Genetics 76:601–606.MathSciNetGoogle Scholar
  35. Golet GH, Schmutz JA, Irons DB, Estes JA (2004) Determinants of reproductive costs in the long-lived black-legged kittiwake: a multi-year experiment. Ecological Monographs 74:353–372.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Gould WR, Nichols JD (1998) Estimation of temporal variability of survival in animal populations. Ecology 75:2531–2538.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Grosbois V, Henry P, Blondel J, Perret P, Lebreton J, Thomas DW, Lambrechts MM (2006) Climate impacts on Mediterranean blue tit survival: an investigation across seasons and spatial scales. Global Change Biology 12:2235–2249.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Guinan JA, Gowaty PA, Eltzroth EK (2000) Western bluebird (Sialia mexicana). In Birds of North America, no. 510 in Poole A, Gill F, eds. Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.Google Scholar
  39. Haridas CV, Tuljapurkar S (2005) Elasticities in variable environments: properties and implications. American Naturalist 166:481–495.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Harris MP, Wanless S, Rothery P, Swann RL, Jardine D (2000) Survival of adult common guillemots Uria aalge at three Scottish colonies. Bird Study 47:1–7.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Holland MM, Bitz CM, Tremblay B (2006) Future abrupt reductions in the summer Arctic sea ice. Geophysical Research Letters 33:L23503.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Jenouvrier S, Barbraud C, Weimerskirch H (2003) Effects of climate variability on the temporal population dynamics of southern fulmars. Journal of Animal Ecology 72:576–587.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Jenouvrier S, Barbraud C, Weimerskirch H (2006) Sea ice affects the population dynamics of Adelie penguins in Terre Adelie. Polar Biology 29:413–423.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Johnson DH, Owen M (1992) World waterfowl populations: status and dynamics. Pages 635–652 in McCullough DR, Barrett RH, eds. Wildlife 2001: populations. Elsevier Applied Science, New York, USA.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Jones J, Barg JJ, Sillett TS, Veit ML, Robertson RJ (2004) Minimum estimates of survival and population growth for cerulean warblers (Dendroica cerulea) breeding in Ontario, Canada. Auk 121:15–22.Google Scholar
  46. Julliard R (2004) Estimating the contribution of survival and recruitment to large scale population dynamics. Animal Biodiversity and Conservation 27:417–426.Google Scholar
  47. Kery M, Madsen J, Lebreton J (2006) Survival of Svalbard pink-footed geese Anser brachyrhynchus in relation to winter climate, density and land-use. Journal of Animal Ecology 75:1172–1181.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Keyser AJ, Keyser MT, Promislow BEL (2004) Life-history variation and demography in western bluebirds (Sialia mexicana) in Oregon. Auk 121:118–133.Google Scholar
  49. Lahaye WS, Zimmerman GS, Gutierrez RJ (2004) Temporal variation in the vital rates of an insular population of spotted owls (Strix occidentalis occidentalis): contrasting effects of weather. Auk 121:1056–1069.Google Scholar
  50. Lake BC, Walker J, Lindberg MS (2006) Survival of ducks banded in the boreal forest of Alaska. Journal of Wildlife Management 70:443–449.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Lampila S, Orell M, Belda E, Koivula K (2006) Importance of adult survival, local recruitment and immigration in a declining boreal forest passerine, the willow tit Parus montanus. Oecologia 148:405–413.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Lande R, Engen S, Sæther B-E (2003) Stochastic population dynamics in ecology and conservation. Oxford University Press, Oxford.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Lewontin RC, Cohen D (1969) On population growth in a randomly varying environment. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 62:1056–1060.Google Scholar
  54. Link WA, Doherty PF (2002) Scaling in sensitivity analysis. Ecology 83:3299–3305.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Link WA, Sauer JR (2002) A hierarchical analysis of population change with application to Cerulean warblers. Ecology 83:2832–2840.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Mazerolle DF, Dufour KW, Hobson KA, den Haan HE (2005) Effects of large-scale climatic fluctuations on survival and production of young in a neotropical migrant songbird, the yellow warbler Dendroica petechia. Journal of Avian Biology 36:155–163.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Møller AP (2007a) Tardy females, impatient males: protandry and divergent selection on arrival date in the two sexes of the barn swallow. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 61: 1311–1319.Google Scholar
  58. Møller AP (2007b) Interval between clutches, fitness, and climate change. Behavioral Ecology 18:62–70.Google Scholar
  59. Møller AP, Szep T (2002) Survival rate of adult barn swallows Hirundo rustica in relation to sexual selection and reproduction. Ecology 8:2220–2228.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Morris WF, Doak DF (2004) Buffering of life histories against environmental stochasticity: accounting for a spurious correlation between the variabilities of vital rates and their contributions to fitness. American Naturalist 163:579–590.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Nichols JD, Conroy MJ, Anderson DR, Burnham KP (1984) Compensatory mortality in waterfowl populations: a review of evidence and implications for research and management. Transactions of the North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference 49:535–554.Google Scholar
  62. Nichols JD, Hines JE (1983) The relationship between harvest and survival rates of mallards: a straightforward approach with partitioned data sets. Journal of Wildlife Management 47: 334–348.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Nichols JD, Kendall WL, Hines JE, Spendelow JA (2003) Estimation of sex-specific survival from capture–recapture data when sex is not always known. Ecology 85:3192–3200.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Nussey DH, Postma E, Gienapp P, Visser ME (2005) Selection on heritable phenotypic plasticity in a wild bird population. Science 310:304–306.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Olsson O, van der Jeugd HP (2002) Survival in king penguins Aptenodytes patagonicus: temporal and sex-specific effects of environmental variability. Oecologia 132:509–516.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Oro D, Furness RW (2004) Influences of food availability and predation on the survival of kittiwakes. Ecology 83:2516–2528.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Pfister CA (1998) Patterns of variance in stage-structured populations: evolutionary predictions and ecological implications. Proceedings National Academy Science 95:213–218.Google Scholar
  68. Puglisi L, Bretagnolle V (2005) Breeding biology of the great bittern. Waterbirds 28:392–398.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Ratcliffe N, Catry P, Hamer KC, Klomp NI, Furness RW (2002) The effect of age and year on the survival of breeding adult great skuas Catharacta skua in Shetland. Ibis 144:384–392.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Rich TD, Beardmore CJ, Berlanga H, Blancher PJ, Bradstreet MSW, Butcher GS, Demarest DW, Dunn EH, Hunter WC, Inigo-Elias EE, Kennedy JA, Martell AM, Punjabi AO, Pashley DN, Rosenberg KV, Rustay CM, Wendt JS, Will TC (2004) Partners in flight North American landbird conservation plan. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.Google Scholar
  71. Roff DA (2002) Life history evolution. Sinauer Associates, Inc., Sunderland, Massachusetts, USA.Google Scholar
  72. Sæther B-E, Bakke, Ø (2000) Avian life history variation and the contribution of demographic traits to the population growth rate. Ecology 81:642–653.Google Scholar
  73. Saltz D, Rubenstein DI, White GC (2006) The impact of increased environmental stochasticity due to climate change on the dynamics of Asiatic wild ass. Conservation Biology 20:1402–1409.Google Scholar
  74. Sandercock BK, Beissinger SR, Stoleson SH, Melland RR, Hughes CR (2000) Survival rates of a neotropical parrot: implications for latitudinal comparisons of avian demography. Ecology 81:1351–1370.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Schaeffer SE, Rusch DH, Humburg DD, Lawrence JS, Zenner GG, Gillespie MM, Caswell FD, Wilds S, Yaich SC (2004) Survival, movements, and harvest of eastern prairie population Canada geese. Wildlife Monographs 156.Google Scholar
  76. Schaub M, Kania W, Koppen U (2005) Variation of primary production during winter induces synchrony in survival rates in migratory white storks Ciconia ciconia. Journal of Animal Ecology 74:656–666.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Schmutz JA, Byrd GV (2004) Modeling the influence of productivity, survival, and meta-population dynamics on trends of kittiwakes and murres at the Pribilof Islands, Alaska. .
  78. Sedinger JS, Ward DH, Schamber JL, Butler WI, Eldridge WD, Conant B, Voelzer JF, Chelgren ND, Herzog MP (2006) Effects of El Nino on distribution and reproductive performance of black brant. Ecology 87:151–159.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Sillett TS, Holmes RT (2002) Variation in survivorship of a migratory songbird throughout its annual cycle. Journal of Animal Ecology 71:296–308.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Spottiswoode CN, Tøttrup AP, Coppack T (2006) Sexual selection predicts advancement of avian spring migration in response to climate change. Proceedings of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences 273:3023–3029.Google Scholar
  81. Stotz DF, Fitzpatric JW, Parker TA, Moskovits DK (1996) Neotropical birds: ecology and conservation. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois, USA.Google Scholar
  82. Tuljapurkar S (1982) Population dynamics in variable environments. III. Evolutionary dynamics of r-selection. Theoretical Population Biology 21:141–165.CrossRefMATHMathSciNetGoogle Scholar
  83. Wanless S, Frederiksen M, Harris MP, Freeman SN (2006) Survival of gannets Morus bassanus in Britain and Ireland, 1959–2002. Bird Study 53:79–85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Weimerskirch H, Zimmermann L, Prince PA (2001) Influence of environmental variability on breeding effort in a long-lived seabird, the yellow-nosed albatross. Behavioral Ecology 12: 22–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  85. White GC (2000) Population viability analysis: data requirements and essential analyses. Pages 288–331 in Boitani L, Fuller TK, eds. Research techniques in animal ecology: controversies and consequences. Columbia University Press, New York, USA.Google Scholar
  86. White GC, Burnham KP, Barker R (2008) Evaluation of some Bayesian MCMC random effects inference methodology applicable to bird ringing data. In: Thomson DL, Cooch EG, Conroy MJ (eds.) Modeling Demographic Processes in Marked Populations. Environmental and Ecological Statistics, Springer, New York.Google Scholar
  87. Williams BK, Nichols JD, Conroy MJ (2002) Analysis and management of animal populations: modeling, estimation, and decision making. Academic Press, San Diego, California, USA.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Alaska Science CenterU. S. Geological SurveyAnchorageUSA

Personalised recommendations