Nebraska Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit


Date of this Version



Published in J. Field Ornithol. 81(4):420–429, 2010.


The use of aural surveys to estimate population parameters is widespread in avian studies.Despite efforts to increase the efficacy of this method, the potential for ecological context to bias population estimates remains largely unexplored. For example, food availability and nest predation risk can influence singing activity independent of density and, therefore, may bias aural estimates where these ecological factors vary systematically among habitats or other categories of ecological interest. We used a natural fire event in a mixed-conifer forest that experienced variation in fire severity (low, intermediate, and high) to determine if aural surveys produce accurate density estimates of Dark-eyed Juncos ( Junco hyemalis) independent of ecological context. During the first 2-yr postfire, we censused junco populations in each burn type with intensive spot-mapping and nest searching, locating 168 nests. Simultaneously, we conducted fixed-radius point-count surveys and estimated food availability and nest predation risk in each burn type to test whether ecological context may influence aural detection probability independent of actual density. We found no difference in nesting densities among patches burned at different severity. Arthropod food availability was inversely related to fire severity during the first postfire breeding season, but increased to higher levels across all severities during the second. In both years, aural detections were significantly greater in intermediate severity patches that consistently represented the habitat with the lowest nest predation risk. These results suggest that nest predation risk may significantly bias aural estimates of avian populations. Although traditional aural survey methods such as the Breeding Bird Survey measure habitat attributes, our findings highlight the difficulty in assessing relevant covariates in estimates of avian population. Future research must consider the potential for nest predation and other ecological factors to drive interannual or interhabitat variation in avian population estimates independent of true changes in population size.