Title page for ETD etd-11152000-11280056

Type of Document Dissertation
Author Cooper, Caren Beth
Author's Email Address cacooper@vt.edu
URN etd-11152000-11280056
Title The Behavioral Ecology and Conservation of an Australian Passerine, the Brown Treecreeper (Climacteris picumnus)
Degree PhD
Department Biology
Advisory Committee
Advisor Name Title
Walters, Jeffrey R. Committee Chair
Cranford, Jack A. Committee Member
Haas, Carola A. Committee Member
Jones, Robert H. Committee Member
Webster, Jackson R. Committee Member
  • cooperative breeding
  • fragmentation
  • degradation
  • isolation
  • edge
Date of Defense 2000-09-11
Availability unrestricted

This study addressed two aspects of ecological theory developed primarily in North America and examined these theories using an Australian passerine as a model species. The first theory concerns the mechanisms by which habitat fragmentation affects avian populations. I investigated the mechanisms causing the decline of the Brown Treecreeper (Climacteris picumnus) in fragmented habitat, and specifically considered the effects of isolation and habitat degradation, which are potentially important in Australian woodlands, and edge (patch size), which are important in North America. Brown Treecreeper groups were as productive in isolated patches as in connected patches of habitat regardless of patch size, yet unpaired males were common in isolated fragments of habitat. I conducted a field experiment that confirmed that female dispersal was disrupted among isolated fragments. Thus, my results suggested Brown Treecreepers were declining due to disruption of dispersal by habitat fragmentation rather than degradation or edge effects. I compared the results of an individual-based, spatially explicit simulation model to field observations and concluded that territory spatial arrangement and matrix composition altered dispersal success, recruitment, and subsequent population growth. With the aid of a geographic information system, I determined that both landscape factors (fragmentation patterns within 4.5-km) and habitat characteristics (cavity density) explained Brown Treecreeper presence and absence from random locations in woodland habitat. The birds appear to be absent from suitable habitat in unsuitable landscapes.

The second theory I addressed concerns the maintenance of avian cooperative breeding. The most widely accepted models to explain cooperative breeding suggest that individuals that delay dispersal obtain a payoff under conditions in which the quality of breeding positions varies greatly. These models arose chiefly from a few long-term studies in North American. This is an unfortunate bias because the occurrence of cooperative breeding among birds of Gondwanan origin is 22%, whereas the worldwide incidence is only 3%. I used demographic and habitat data to examine the influence of habitat and cooperative breeding on Brown Treecreeper fitness. Group size affected one component of fitness and habitat variables affected another. High cavity density may be favorable due to intense inter-specific competition for suitable cavities, which Brown Treecreepers require for roosting and nesting. Low tree density may be advantageous by favoring ground foraging, in which Brown Treecreepers frequently engage. Experimental manipulations of important habitat variables are needed to determine whether variability in these ecological factors is critical in maintaining group formation in this species.

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