A hierarchical nest survival model integrating incomplete temporally varying covariates



Nest success is a critical determinant of the dynamics of avian populations, and nest survival modeling has played a key role in advancing avian ecology and management. Beginning with the development of daily nest survival models, and proceeding through subsequent extensions, the capacity for modeling the effects of hypothesized factors on nest survival has expanded greatly. We extend nest survival models further by introducing an approach to deal with incompletely observed, temporally varying covariates using a hierarchical model. Hierarchical modeling offers a way to separate process and observational components of demographic models to obtain estimates of the parameters of primary interest, and to evaluate structural effects of ecological and management interest. We built a hierarchical model for daily nest survival to analyze nest data from reintroduced whooping cranes (Grus americana) in the Eastern Migratory Population. This reintroduction effort has been beset by poor reproduction, apparently due primarily to nest abandonment by breeding birds. We used the model to assess support for the hypothesis that nest abandonment is caused by harassment from biting insects. We obtained indices of blood-feeding insect populations based on the spatially interpolated counts of insects captured in carbon dioxide traps. However, insect trapping was not conducted daily, and so we had incomplete information on a temporally variable covariate of interest. We therefore supplemented our nest survival model with a parallel model for estimating the values of the missing insect covariates. We used Bayesian model selection to identify the best predictors of daily nest survival. Our results suggest that the black fly Simulium annulus may be negatively affecting nest survival of reintroduced whooping cranes, with decreasing nest survival as abundance of S. annulus increases. The modeling framework we have developed will be applied in the future to a larger data set to evaluate the biting-insect hypothesis and other hypotheses for nesting failure in this reintroduced population; resulting inferences will support ongoing efforts to manage this population via an adaptive management approach. Wider application of our approach offers promise for modeling the effects of other temporally varying, but imperfectly observed covariates on nest survival, including the possibility of modeling temporally varying covariates collected from incubating adults.