Assessments of habitat preferences and quality depend on spatial scale and metrics of fitness


Anna D. Chalfoun, United States Geological Survey, Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, University of Montana, Missoula, MT 59812, USA (fax 406 243 6064; e-mail


  • 1Identifying the habitat features that influence habitat selection and enhance fitness is critical for effective management. Ecological theory predicts that habitat choices should be adaptive, such that fitness is enhanced in preferred habitats. However, studies often report mismatches between habitat preferences and fitness consequences across a wide variety of taxa based on a single spatial scale and/or a single fitness component.
  • 2We examined whether habitat preferences of a declining shrub steppe songbird, the Brewer's sparrow Spizella breweri, were adaptive when multiple reproductive fitness components and spatial scales (landscape, territory and nest patch) were considered.
  • 3We found that birds settled earlier and in higher densities, together suggesting preference, in landscapes with greater shrub cover and height. Yet nest success was not higher in these landscapes; nest success was primarily determined by nest predation rates. Thus landscape preferences did not match nest predation risk. Instead, nestling mass and the number of nesting attempts per pair increased in preferred landscapes, raising the possibility that landscapes were chosen on the basis of food availability rather than safe nest sites.
  • 4At smaller spatial scales (territory and nest patch), birds preferred different habitat features (i.e. density of potential nest shrubs) that reduced nest predation risk and allowed greater season-long reproductive success.
  • 5Synthesis and applications. Habitat preferences reflect the integration of multiple environmental factors across multiple spatial scales, and individuals may have more than one option for optimizing fitness via habitat selection strategies. Assessments of habitat quality for management prescriptions should ideally include analysis of diverse fitness consequences across multiple ecologically relevant spatial scales.