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Latitudinal variation in blue tit and great tit nest characteristics indicates environmental adjustment

Publication Date
  • C180 Ecology
  • C142 Reproductive Biology
  • Design
  • Ecology
  • Geography


Aim The laying of eggs and the building of a nest structure to accommodate them are two of the defining characteristics of members of the class Aves. Nest structures vary considerably across avian taxa and for many species the design of the completed nest can have important consequences for both parents and their offspring. While nest characteristics are expected to vary adaptively in response to environmental conditions, large-scale spatial variation in nest characteristics has been largely overlooked. Here, we examined the effects of latitudinal variation in spring temperatures on nest characteristics, including insulatory properties, and reproductive success of blue tits, Cyanistes caeruleus, and great tits, Parus major. Location Great Britain. Methods Nests and reproductive data were collected from seven study sites, spread over five degrees of latitude. Then, the nest insulatory properties were determined before the nests were separated into either nest base material or cup lining material. Results As spring temperatures increased with decreasing latitude, the mass of the nest base material did not vary in either species, whilst the mass of the cup lining material and nest insulatory properties decreased in both species. This suggests that in response to increasing temperatures the breeding female reduces the mass of the cup lining material thereby maintaining an appropriate microclimate for incubating and brooding. The mean laying dates of both species advanced with decreasing latitude and increasing spring temperatures, although reproductive success did not vary. Main conclusions This is the first study to demonstrate that birds are systematically adjusting their nest structure in response to variation in ambient temperatures across large spatial scales. Therefore, nest composition reliably indicates environmental conditions and we suggest that studies of nest structure may be sentinels for the early signs of rapid climate change.

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