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Breeding dispersal in an isolated population of Spotted Owls Strix occidentalis: evidence for improved reproductive output


Corresponding author.


Breeding dispersal among territorial species is of interest to population biologists because leaving a territory carries fundamental risks to the dispersing individuals, and this may not outweigh the costs of maintaining the territory. Most studies of breeding dispersal have focused on species inhabiting spatially open populations, in which undetected emigration could impart a negative bias to estimates of dispersal. We studied breeding dispersal in an isolated (spatially closed) population of California Spotted Owl Strix occidentalis occidentalis in southern California for 12 years to assess factors that might correlate with breeding dispersal. Twenty-nine per cent (= 47) of territorial females and 19% (= 35) of territorial males dispersed at least once during the study. Annually, 0–13% of the territorial females and 0–12% of the territorial males dispersed. Among a set of a priori and post hoc models related to breeding dispersal, the top a priori model indicated that birds having higher reproductive output relative to the population average were less likely to disperse. A post hoc model based on an index of territory quality was ranked higher than the top a priori model and indicated that birds occupying higher quality territories were less likely to disperse. These two models were correlated and represented short- and long-term reproductive performance, respectively. Birds that dispersed also failed to fledge young in the year prior to dispersal, but the failure to fledge young did not, by itself, explain dispersal. Because Spotted Owls are long-lived, they may ultimately improve their reproduction by dispersing given that they would have future opportunities to breed over the long term. Birds whose mates are likely to have died tended to improve their reproductive success, whereas the relationship between reproductive success of birds that divorced was less clear. Substantial variation in breeding dispersal was unexplained by our analysis so it is likely that the motivation to disperse was a complex process in this population.