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Acorns and Acorn Woodpeckers: Ups and Downs in a Long-Term Relationship

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Acorn woodpeckers are one of the most conspicuous and abundant birds in California oak forests due to their unique dependence on acorns, a food resource eaten directly and stored in specialized structures on their territories for later use when acorns are no longer present on trees. Parallel long-term studies of the demography and behavior of this species and of patterns of acorn production by oaks at Hastings Reservation in central coastal California have revealed many ways that acorn crops influence the ecology and behavior of acorn woodpeckers. We present results focusing on the large-scale effects of oaks on the geographical ecology of acorn woodpeckers and how the acorn crop influences woodpecker demography, including the probability that young remain as helpers and the corresponding fitness consequences of this decision.
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Acorns and Acorn Woodpeckers: Ups and
Downs in a Long-Term Relationship
1
Walter D. Koenig,
2
Eric L. Walters,
3
Johannes M.H. Knops,
4
and
William J. Carmen
5
Abstract
Acorn woodpeckers are one of the most conspicuous and abundant birds in California oak
forests due to their unique dependence on acorns, a food resource eaten directly and stored in
specialized structures on their territories for later use when acorns are no longer present on
trees. Parallel long-term studies of the demography and behavior of this species and of
patterns of acorn production by oaks at Hastings Reservation in central coastal California
have revealed many ways that acorn crops influence the ecology and behavior of acorn
woodpeckers. We present results focusing on the large-scale effects of oaks on the
geographical ecology of acorn woodpeckers and how the acorn crop influences woodpecker
demography, including the probability that young remain as helpers and the corresponding
fitness consequences of this decision.
Key words: acorns, acorn woodpeckers, masting, Melanerpes formicivorus, oaks
Introduction
One need not study acorn woodpeckers (Melanerpes formicivorus), a common avian
resident and by far the most common woodpecker in California, for very long before
it becomes apparent that their dependence on acorns, as suggested by their common
name, is far more appropriate than their proclivity to eat ants, as suggested by their
scientific name. Indeed, except perhaps for a brief period during late summer, it is
difficult to not be struck by the degree to which the lives of acorn woodpeckers
revolve around oak trees and their acorns, as much of their time involves harvesting
acorns, storing them in unique structures known as ‘storage trees’, or ‘granaries’,
located on their territories, defending granaries from both conspecifics and other
species, and eating acorns when conditions are unsuitable for flycatching or obtaining
otherwise more nutritious food.
Early in our long-term study of the social behavior of acorn woodpeckers, which
we began in 1974 by continuing a study initiated in 1968 by Michael and Barbara
MacRoberts (1976), it became obvious that many aspects of acorn woodpecker
population ecology were dependent on what was clearly a highly variable acorn crop.
This was not surprising; not only had Carl and Jane Bock demonstrated that the
geographical ecology of acorn woodpeckers was dependent on oak species richness
(Bock and Bock 1974), but numerous studies dating back at least 30 years had
reported data suggesting that oaks frequently produced highly variable acorn crops
(Burns and others 1954, Downs and McQuilkin 1944, Tryon and Carvell 1962).
1
An abbreviated version of this paper was presented at the Seventh California Oak Symposium:
Managing Oak Woodlands in a Dynamic World, November 3-6, 2014, Visalia, California.
2
Senior Scientist, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY 14850. (wdk4@cornell.edu).
3
Assistant Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, VA
23529.
4
Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, NE 68588.
5
Biologist, Carmen Ecological Consulting, 145 Eldridge Ave., Mill Valley, CA 94941.
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GENERAL TECHNICAL REPORT PSW-GTR-251
Despite these prior studies, including ongoing work examining oak regeneration at
our study site by Jim Griffin that involved work quantifying acorn fall under a
number of valley oaks (Quercus lobata, Griffin 1971), we soon decided that more
detailed investigation of the acorn crop and its effects on the acorn woodpecker
population were warranted.
Here we briefly summarize some of those effects, extracted from what has
become parallel long-term studies of the social behavior and population ecology of
acorn woodpeckers and variable seed production in California oaks (Koenig and
Mumme 1987, Koenig and others 1994b, Koenig and others 2011, Koenig and others
2015). We present results illustrating the effects of the acorn crop on the demography
of the acorn woodpecker population, summarize some of the large-scale
biogeographical effects of oaks on acorn woodpeckers, and briefly discuss effects the
acorn crop has on their social behavior.
Methods
Our study site is Hastings Natural History Reservation in central coastal California, a
field station run by the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California
Berkeley. Acorn woodpeckers are cooperative breeders, living in family groups of 2
to 16 individuals generally consisting of both multiple breeders of both sexes and
offspring that remain in their natal group as nonbreeding helpers, often for many
years (Koenig and others 1984). Acorn woodpeckers at Hastings have been
individually color-banded and monitored continuously since 1971; studies
quantifying the acorn crop were initiated in October 1980 (Koenig and others 1994a).
Thus, most of our analyses include bird data from 1981 (the first year for which we
had acorn data from the prior fall) through 2012 or 2013. Weather data are from
Hastings Reservation headquarters (36° 23’ N, 121°, 33’ W).
Our measure of the acorn crop is based on a modified version of the visual survey
technique introduced by Graves (1980). Each autumn two observers counted as many
acorns in 15 seconds as they could on each tree using binoculars; counts were then
combined (N30) and ln-transformed (ln[N30+1] = LN30) for subsequent analysis.
Surveys were performed on an initial sample of 250 marked trees (several of which
have since died) spread throughout the field site and divided among the five tree oak
species present in at least part of the study site (currently 86 Q. lobata, 56 Q.
douglasii, 63 Q. agrifolia, 21 Q. chrysolepis, and 20 Q. kelloggii). Trees were located
near established acorn woodpecker territories, and although unequally divided among
the species, provide a reasonably unbiased sample of the importance of not only the
acorn crop for the different species but the relative importance of the species to the
acorn woodpecker population. Thus, we took the mean of LN30 values in year x for
all individuals of the same species for an estimate of that species’ acorn crop, and the
mean of LN30 values for all 250 individuals in year x for an estimate of the overall
size of the acorn crop in a given year. For a few analyses, we divided trees based on
where they were located within the study site; we were particularly interested in
differences in areas where only three of the oak species were generally present (Q.
lobata, Q. douglasii, and Q. agrifolia; all “1-year” species that mature acorns in a
single year) compared to sites where four species were present (the prior three plus
Q. chrysolepis, a “2-year” species that matures acorns in 2 years) and those where all
five were common (the prior four plus Q. kelloggii, also a 2-year species).
In order to keep track of timing, we refer to the calendar year of an event as taking
place in ‘year x’, where x ranges from -1 to +1. The primary effects of the acorn crop
in the fall of one year (typically ‘year -1’) are manifested on the woodpecker
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Proceedings of the 7th California Oak Symposium: Managing Oak Woodlands in a Dynamic World
population the following spring (typically ‘year 0’). Lagged effects are referenced
similarly.
Statistical analyses, described in the text, were conducted in R 3.0.3 (R Core
Team 2014).
Results
Variability in the acorn crop
As expected, the acorn crop varied considerably from year to year; the mean acorn
crop for Q. lobata as estimated by our annual survey is graphed in fig. 1a. Variability
as measured by the coefficient of variation (CV = standard deviation x 100 / mean)
for the five species individually at Hastings between 1980 and 2013 ranged from 55.3
percent for Q. douglasii to 74.5 percent for Q. kelloggii. Acorn production is
typically asynchronous among species, however, particularly among those that
require different number of years to mature crops (Koenig and Haydock 1999,
Koenig and others 1994b). Consequently, the overall variability in the number of
available acorns from any of the five species in the oak community (‘community
variability’), although still variable from year to year (fig. 1b), was considerably less
so than that of any one of the species by itself. The mean CV for the five individual
species at Hastings was 62.7 percent, nearly 50 percent greater than the community
variability as estimated by considering all five species together (fig. 1b).
a b
4
CV = 55.8%
4
CV = 42.4%
3
crop
3
crop
2
Mean acorn
2
Mean acorn
1 1
0 0
1980 1990 2000 2010 1980 1990 2000 2010
Figure 1—The mean number of acorns counted in 30-sec per tree (ln transformed)
for (a) Quercus lobata and (b) all species combined, Hastings Reservation, 1980 to
2013 (N = 34 years.) Variability, measured by the coefficient of variation (CV), is
listed.
Acorn woodpeckers exhibit little to no preference for different species of acorns
(Koenig and Benedict 2002, Koenig and others 2008a) and territories in our study
have access to between three and five species of oaks. As a result, years when few
acorns of any species are available to groups are rare. Three to four such years are
evident from fig. 1b; when sufficiently bad, poor years resulted in the disintegration
of many groups, with the proportion of birds of different classes disappearing being
inversely related to their status in the dominance hierarchy (Hannon and others
1987). Conversely, when the overall acorn crop was very good, some groups were
able to produce a fall nest. Such nests, which start in August or September and fledge
young as late as early November, occurred in about one-third of years and
contributed only 4.3 percent of the population’s total productivity overall. In 1984,
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GENERAL TECHNICAL REPORT PSW-GTR-251
however, following the bad acorn crop of 1983 and a poor 1984 spring acorn
woodpecker breeding season, 50 percent of the calendar-year’s productivity of
fledglings was attributed to fall nests (Koenig and Stahl 2007).
Long-term effects of the acorn crop
Good acorn crops were not only accompanied by occasional fall nests but were
followed by early and highly productive breeding seasons the following spring,
including significantly larger clutch sizes (r = 0.37, P <0.05), significantly more
groups having successful second nests (r = 0.64, P <0.001), and significantly more
young fledged per group (r = 0.76, P <0.001; fig. 2b).
When high productivity in year 0 followed a good acorn crop in year -1, groups
had more helpers the following spring in year +1 (r = 0.59, P <0.001) and larger
mean group size (r = 0.61, P <0.001; fig. 2c). Thus, the effects of a good acorn crop
were detectable in the population over 2 years later. It is likely that such effects might
be felt even longer, but the negative lag-1 correlation between annual acorn crops
(the correlation between the overall mean acorn crop in year 0 and year +1 = -0.49, P
= 0.005) resulted in a significant inverse correlation between the acorn crop in year -1
and fledging success 2 years later (fig. 2d). Going backwards in time, however, the
overall mean acorn crop, which was strongly weighted in our sample by the
productivity of Q. lobata, a 1-year species, was significantly correlated with mean
maximum temperature the prior April (fig. 2a), apparently due to a complex
relationship linking mean temperature to phenological synchrony, pollen availability,
and fertilization success (Koenig and others 2015). Thus, based on mean maximum
temperature during a particular April, it was possible to predict the overall acorn crop
that fall (fig. 2a), fledging success of the acorn woodpecker population the following
year (r = 0.42, P = 0.01), and mean group size 2 years later (r = 0.35, P = 0.05).
26
1
2
3
3
4
5
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Proceedings of the 7th California Oak Symposium: Managing Oak Woodlands in a Dynamic World
r = 0.57***
a
15 20 25
4
3
2
1
0
r = 0.76***
b
Mean young fledged (year 1) Mean young fledged (year 0)
Mean group size (year 1) Mean acorn crop (year 1)
0 1 2 3 4
Mean max April temp (year 1) Mean acorn crop (year 1)
4
3
2
1
0
d
r = 0.57***
c
r = 0.61***
0 1 2 3 0 1 2 3 4
Mean acorn crop (year 1) Mean acorn crop (year 1)
Figure 2—Scattergrams of (a) the mean acorn crop in year -1 vs. maximum April
temperature in year -1; (b) the mean number of young fledged per group in year 0 vs.
the mean acorn crop in year -1; (c) mean group size in year 1 vs. the mean acorn
crop in year -1 and; (d) the mean number of young fledged per group in year 1 vs. the
mean acorn crop in year -1. Pearson correlations (all P <0.001) listed.
Role of oak richness
A reanalysis and updating of Bock and Bock’s (1974) study of the relationship
between acorn woodpeckers reported on the Audubon Christmas Bird Counts
confirmed that the distributional limit of the species along the Pacific Coast is set not
by the limit of oaks, but by sites where oak richness drops to a single species (Koenig
and Haydock 1999). Moreover, results supported the intuitively pleasing conclusion
that mean woodpecker population size is determined by the extent of oak woodland
in an area (resource abundance), while annual variability in population size is
inversely correlated with oak species richness (resource variability). The rationale for
this finding is that annual variability in the overall acorn crop decreases as the
number of oak species increases due to asynchrony in acorn production, as illustrated
in fig. 1. No such relationship was detected by either study among sites in the
southwestern United States. Although the reasons for this difference are unclear, it is
possibly related to the relatively rare co-occurrence of 1-year and 2-year species of
oaks in the Southwest. With a high proportion of sites containing only species of oaks
that mature acorns in the same number of years, there is quite possibly greater
synchrony of acorn production, and thus higher overall acorn variability, in the
Southwest compared to the Pacific Coast (Koenig and Haydock 1999).
There is similar evidence that variability associated with oak species richness may
be detectable even within a limited geographic scale such as our Hastings study site.
By dividing the study area into regions within which different numbers of oak species
(three, four, or five) were common, we tested their effects on woodpecker
productivity. Among the three categories of oak richness, mean woodpecker group
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GENERAL TECHNICAL REPORT PSW-GTR-251
size increased with increasing oak richness (Kruskal-Wallis test,
= 8.8, df = 2, P =
0.01) whereas annual variability in group size decreased significantly (Kruskal-
Wallis test,
= 12.3, df = 2, P = 0.002) with oak richness (fig. 3). The latter result
was due to a sharp decrease in CV among sites with access to four or more oak
species, the areas that included both 1-year and 2-year species of oaks.
4.00
4.25
4.50
4.75
5.00
Mean g
r
oup size
20
30
40
50
60
70
CV group size
Mean
CV
3 4 5
N oak species
Figure 3—Mean and coefficient of variation in the size of acorn woodpecker groups
at Hastings Reservation, 1975 to 2013, depending on the number of oak species to
which they had ready access. The three oak species in the first category are all ‘1-
year’ species that mature acorns in a single year; additional species are ‘2-year’
species requiring 2 years to mature acorns.
Crop size and helping behavior
Young acorn woodpeckers typically delay dispersal as a ‘best of a bad job’ strategy
when they are unable to fill a reproductive vacancy in the population (Koenig and
Mumme 1987). The availability of such vacancies, and thus the proportion of helpers
able to become breeders in any one year, was influenced by the acorn crop.
Specifically, when the acorn crop was good (year -1), a higher proportion of helpers
survived the subsequent winter to become helpers the next spring (fig. 4a). This was
presumably because the high reproductive success in spring of year 0 resulted in
more offspring being produced, and with a limited number of territories, a higher
proportion of birds were forced to remain as helpers in year +1. This relationship
remained significant even after controlling for the acorn crop in year 0. In contrast,
the proportion of helpers that remained as helpers into the next breeding season
decreased with larger acorn crops in the same year (year 0) (fig. 4b). This
relationship may once again be a side-effect of the lag-1 correlation in the acorn crop,
since it was not significant in an analysis that included both the acorn crop in year -1
and in year 0, but to the extent it is real it was possibly the result of favorable food
conditions resulting in an increased number of vacancies in otherwise poor-quality
territories that were then colonized by older helpers. In any case, the acorn crop
clearly had important effects on the probability of helpers obtaining reproductive
vacancies and, conversely, continuing to help in their natal group.
The acorn crop also influenced the degree to which helpers influenced the
reproductive success of groups. Prior work in other cooperative breeding species has
suggested that in many cases, helpers are most important when conditions are poor,
allowing pairs to breed successfully when they otherwise would be unable to acquire
sufficient resources for themselves and their offspring (Covas and others 2008,
Magrath 2001). In contrast, in acorn woodpeckers, evidence indicates that helpers
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Proceedings of the 7th California Oak Symposium: Managing Oak Woodlands in a Dynamic World
significantly increase survivorship and reproductive success of breeders when
conditions are good—that is, following large acorn crops—rather than when
conditions are poor (Koenig and others 2011). Perplexingly, this effect was only
observed for helper males (fig. 5a); the statistical effect of a helper female on
reproductive success was nonsignificantly positive and independent of the acorn
crop.
This result becomes even more difficult to explain when looked at in greater
detail. First, assuming that the different effects of helpers are due to differences in
their provisioning behavior, we would expect to see feeding rates that parallel the
above patterns. In contrast, there was no relationship between provisioning rates of
helpers and environmental conditions—that is, the prior fall’s acorn crop—for either
male (fig. 5b) or female helpers. How, then, did helper males benefit their group? If
we restrict the analysis to first spring nests only, the strong positive relationship
between the effect size of a helper male and the acorn crop disappears (fig. 5c). The
probability of having two successful nests in a season, however, increased
significantly among breeding pairs when they had helper males (fig. 5d).
a
b
90 90
80
80
70
70
60 60
50 50
r = 0.58***
40
r = 0.38*
40
0.5 1.0 1.5 2.0 2.5 3.0 0.5 1.0 1.5 2.0 2.5 3.0
Mean acorn crop year 1 Mean acorn crop year 0
Figure 4—Scattergrams of (a) the percent of helpers that remained as helpers from
year 0 to year +1 versus the mean acorn crop in year -1, and (b) the percent of
helpers that remained as helpers from year 0 to year +1 versus the mean acorn crop
in the fall of year 0; Pearson correlations and significance (* P <0.05; *** P <0.001)
listed.
Percent helpers remaining
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GENERAL TECHNICAL REPORT PSW-GTR-251
Provisioning rate
Young fledged (total)
a
b
1.5
2
1.0
1
0.5
0
0.0
1
Effect size
0.5
2
0 1 2 3 0 1 2 3
Young fledged (1st nests) Inc. prob of 2nd nest
c
0.6
d
1.0
0.4
0.5
0.2
0.0
0.0
0.5
0.2
0 1 2 3 0 1 2 3
Mean acorn crop
Figure 5—Mean effect size attributable to a single helper male plotted against the
mean acorn crop size; 1981 to 2012; each point is a year. (a) Total young fledged (r
= 0.50, P = 0.003); (b) provisioning rate (r = -0.02, P = 0.9); (c) young fledged at first
nests only (r = 0.10, P = 0.6; (d) increased probability of breeding pairs having a
second successful nest when they have a helper male (r = 0.50, P = 0.007).
Discussion
Acorns, which can be high in lipids but are generally low in available protein, are in
general a supplementary food resource for acorn woodpeckers that provide a
relatively small, but still extremely important, fraction of the energetic requirements
of their populations in central coastal California (Koenig 1991, Koenig and Mumme
1987). Acorn availability allows acorn woodpeckers to remain resident in all but the
worst acorn years (Hannon and others 1987) and provides them with the flexibility to
feed more nutritionally valuable insects to their nestlings (Koenig and others 2008b).
It is thus not surprising that acorn woodpecker dependence on this resource is
manifested in a variety of ways, both demographically and behaviorally.
When the acorn crop fails, the effects are immediately evident in terms of the
breakdown of group structure and the disintegration of many woodpecker groups
(Hannon and others 1987). Conversely, when the acorn crop in the fall is good, birds
can have fall nests (Koenig and Stahl 2007). Because the acorn crop of different
species of oaks are to some extent asynchronous, the probability of territory
abandonment in a poor year is mitigated by oak richness, especially in areas of
sympatry between ‘1-year’ and ‘2-year’ species that mature acorns in different years.
Such effects are manifested in acorn woodpecker populations along the Pacific Coast
by reduced annual population variability in sites with greater oak species richness,
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Proceedings of the 7th California Oak Symposium: Managing Oak Woodlands in a Dynamic World
but are even expressed on a smaller scale within our study site by groups with access
to more species of oaks exhibiting higher mean group size and lower annual
variability.
The size of the acorn crop has longer-term effects by driving high woodpecker
productivity the following spring and resulting in relatively large groups 2 years later.
Because of the correlation between mean maximum temperatures in the spring and
the subsequent acorn crop, apparently driven by effects on phenology and pollen
availability, it is possible to predict, at least to some extent, not only the acorn crop
but the reproductive success and subsequent group size of acorn woodpeckers in the
population 2 years later based on environmental conditions during the spring.
The acorn crop also affects the competitive environment faced by acorn
woodpecker helpers and thus the probability that they will obtain a reproductive
vacancy rather than remain as nonbreeders in their natal group. More dramatically,
the presence of helper males, but not helper females, enhances the reproductive
success of groups, not by their provisioning behavior, but by increasing the
probability that the group will successfully fledge more than one nest in a season.
What helper males are doing to cause this result is currently under study, as is the
even more perplexing reason for why helper males, but not helper females, exhibit
these effects.
In contrast to some superficially comparable systems, such as that of Clark’s
nutcrackers (Nucifraga columbiana) and piñon pines (Pinus edulis) (Vander Wall
and Balda 1977), the evolutionary dependence of the acorn woodpecker—oak system
is apparently mostly one-way. That is, although acorn woodpeckers are highly
dependent on acorns and oaks, no species of oak is dependent, as far as is known, on
acorn woodpeckers for dispersal or regeneration. Indeed, given the relative efficiency
with which acorn woodpeckers are able to recover acorns stored above ground in
their granaries as opposed to western scrub-jays (Aphelocoma californica) that store
acorns in the ground where subsequent germination is potentially enhanced (Carmen
2004), it is unsurprising that oaks exhibit no obvious adaptation facilitating their use
or harvesting by acorn woodpeckers. Acorn woodpeckers are, nonetheless, one of the
most characteristic denizens of California oak woodlands, and continue to provide
endless surprises with their unique and surprising behavior.
Acknowledgments
We thank our colleagues who have helped with the acorn woodpecker and oak studies over
the years and the many field assistants who collected much of the data. We particularly thank
Vince Voegeli and the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California, Berkeley, for
their assistance. Our work has been supported by the National Science Foundation, most
recently by grants IOS-0918944 and DEB-1256394, and the UC Integrated Hardwood Range
Management Program.
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piñon pine for efficient seed harvest and dispersal. Ecological Monographs 47: 89–111.
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... A third potential cost is the potential for species dependent on ephemeral food resources such as insect outbreaks to more efficiently exploit them by moving to and excavating new cavities near outbreaks (Wiebe et al. 2007). Acorn Woodpeckers are permanent residents but are dependent on, and will sometimes temporarily move to access, acorns when the crop is poor (Hannon et al. 1987, Koenig et al. 2015. Such complete crop failures are rare, however. ...
... Acorn Woodpeckers are dependent on stored acorns as a supplemental food resource in times of inclement weather during the winter and during breeding, when acorns are eaten by both adults and fed to nestlings Mumme 1987, Koenig et al. 2008). Thus, reproductive success and demography are dependent on an acorn crop that is highly variable from year to year (Koenig et al. 2011(Koenig et al. , 2015. To estimate annual acorn abundance, we used data from the California Acorn Survey (Koenig et al. 1994a(Koenig et al. , 1994b. ...
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In forest management, identification and conservation of seed trees is essential. Increasing degradation of Zagros forests has affected the potential of acorn production of different oak species. There is concern that continuing of this process will destroy the valuable individuals of oaks. Unfortunately, there is no adequate information about acorn productions of Zagros native oaks because of the measurement difficulties. In this research, Koenig method as one of the most common and accurate visual survey techniques, was evaluated on Brant`s oak (Quercus brantii Lindl.) trees in forests of Dasht-e Arjan, Fars province, and Darbadam, Kermanshah province during 2009 to 2011. The aim of the research was to test the Koenig method for native oaks of Iran and to present the best regression model for estimation of acorn number of Brant`s oaks in the studied areas. Forty sample trees were selected in each study area using stratified random sampling method. For each tree, all of acorns were counted with two methods of crown counting and Koenig visual estimation method. The same procedure was used for acorn counting in the other studied years. Based on the results, the values of R2 and RMSE for estimated simple linear regression were 0.68 and 0.292 for Dasht-e Arjan, while the values of R2 and RMSE were 0.82 and 0.230 in Darbadam. Totally, efficiency of Koenig method was confirmed. This method is applicable for an easy estimation of acorn number of other Brant`s oak trees in the studied forests in next years. This method could be used for easy identification of seed trees of oaks in order to their conservation.
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Cambridge Core - Animal Behaviour - Cooperative Breeding in Vertebrates - edited by Walter D. Koenig
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Factors that lead to delayed dispersal in cooperative species are known to be complex and may differ substantially among species and populations, and even among individuals within populations and groups. Conditions leading to early dispersal and floating may be equally complex. Clearly, opportunities for independent breeding are constrained in both cooperative and noncooperative populations. What then makes early dispersal and floating the preferred strategy in Western Scrub-Jays? Several factors play a part, including (1) the interplay between the pattern of habitat quality and acorn production, (2) the varied behaviors floaters may employ to exploit these resources and acquire breeding space, (3) the behavioral interactions between territorial jays and floaters, and (4) the ability of floaters to settle on low-quality territories and then, as breeders, to move and improve the quality of their territories. California Scrub-Jays are monogamous, permanently territorial, and noncooperative breeders. Offspring depart from their natal territories at independence, yet breeders tolerate both offspring and unrelated floaters of all ages on their territories except during May and June. Because of this tolerance, juveniles and older floaters aggregate in the highest quality habitats on occupied territories, primarily where acorns are in good supply. Although floaters exhibit diverse dispersal behavior, most remain sedentary throughout the winter and early spring, storing and recovering acorns as do the resident territorial breeders. By late April in most years, the aggregations dissolve and floaters are rarely seen until some of these same individuals return in early July and join large numbers of independent juveniles. The disappearance of floaters is coincidental with increased aggression by territorial jays, but floaters also disappear from areas not occupied by breeders. Floating in scrub-jays took several forms. Some banded juveniles remained on and around their natal territories until the next breeding season, others joined aggregations a short distance away or disappeared. In four of five years, the study area attracted floaters from a wide area. In the anomalous year (when the acorn crop failed), local juveniles departed and no floaters immigrated. In winter, floaters occasionally established pseudo-territories that were abandoned in the late spring. Other floaters moved widely (up to 35 km) during the winter, but the majority established defined home-ranges from fall to early spring. In April of one year, large flocks of up to 60 jays in transit were observed. The few floaters seen during May and June in most years were individually sneaking through territories or, more rarely, moving in unoccupied habitat. In one year (1985) of high acorn abundance lasting until April, floaters remained on their home ranges (which overlapped an average of nine territories) throughout the breeding season; this was coupled with increased tolerance by breeders. Breeder survivorship averaged 83% and 79% per year for males and females, respectively, and reproductive output averaged 1.4 fledglings per pair. Reproductive success of jays that acquired territories as yearlings was near zero and did not peak until age four. Over the five-year period and 215 pair-years, first-year males and females comprised 5% and 10%, respectively, of the breeding population. Of 12 jays that both fledged from and later acquired territories on the study area, five did so as yearlings, four as two-year olds, and three as three-year olds. Nearly all jays gained a territory by pairing with an older, established breeder. Life-table estimates, based upon these and other demographic data, indicate that 19% and 40% of males and females, respectively, acquire territories as yearlings. An analysis of territorial dynamics, including the types of habitats used, occupancy rates of territories, and vegetation characteristics, suggest that all suitable habitat is occupied by breeders in most years and that ecological constraints prevent a sizeable portion of first-year jays from acquiring territories and breeding. Individual jays cache approximately 7,000 acorns each year. Poor acorn years result in significantly higher mortality, reproductive failure, and territory abandonment. The 1983 crop failure, through the effects of higher mortality and territory abandonment, resulted in a 25% decrease in the number of territories on the study area and the potential for new breeding vacancies. Acorn production by the large and patchily distributed oaks in California is highly variable locally within and among years, and periodic crop failures occur every 4 to 6 years, depending on the number of oaks species in the area. Early dispersal is favored because floaters are able to aggregate in areas of high acorn abundance, and the tolerance of floaters by breeders allows them access to the best habitats. Floaters appear to be as dependent on cached acorns as breeders and may be closely tied to these stores during the winter. Floaters may spend fall and winter in areas of high acorn production, despite the fact that these areas provide relatively few breeding opportunities. In the spring, near continuous distribution of oak woodland provides lepidopteran larvae and other insects over a wide area. Floaters are then free to move regionally and search out breeding areas, particularly in areas of prior acorn crop failures that may offer more territory vacancies. This pattern of food abundance may also contribute to the tolerance of floaters in the winter (when acorns are superabundant) and intolerance in the breeding season (when insect prey is important and starvation rates of nestlings are high).
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Acorn germination and seedling survival were studied in three species of foothill woodland oaks. Quercus douglasii and Q. lobata acorns matured in October. These nondormant acorns germinated quickly at favorable temperatures. Quercus agrifolia acorns matured later and germinated more slowly. Acorns placed on the surface of a south-aspect plot lost viability. On a north-facing plot they survived autumn heat and germinated during the winter, but rooted poorly. Acorns buried on either aspect germinated well. Burial by birds and squirrels, important in regeneration, insulates acorns from autumn heat, partially hides them from animals, and ensures rooting. Quercus douglasii seedlings had the greatest drought tolerance. In grass cover on a south-facing soil even they can survive their first summer only during wet years. On north aspects seedlings of several species can survive grass competition over a broader range of climatic conditions. Deer and pocket gophers are important in eliminating seedlings that survive the summer drought.
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Annually variable and synchronous seed production, or masting behavior, is a widespread phenomenon with dramatic effects on wildlife populations and their associated communities. Proximally, masting is often correlated with environmental factors and most likely involves differential pollination success and resource allocation, but little is known about how these factors interact or how they influence seed production. We studied masting in the valley oak (Quercus lobata Nee), a California endemic tree, and report evidence that phenological synchrony in flowering driven by microclimatic variability determines the size of the acorn crop through its effects on pollen availability and fertilization success. These findings integrate two of the major factors believed to influence seed production in wind-pollinated species environmental conditions and pollen limitation by means of a coherent mechanistic hypothesis for how highly variable and synchronized annual seed production is accomplished. We illustrate how, by means of a simulation based on the mechanism proposed here, climate change may influence masting patterns through its effects on environmental variability.
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(1) A poor acorn crop in 1983-84 altered the population dynamics and within-group social behaviour of the co-operatively breeding acorn woodpecker at Hastings Reservation, California. (2) Most territories were abandoned; on others, birds remained, but group size decreased over the winter. Winter loss was inversely related to the number of acorns per bird present in acorn storage trees the previous autumn. (3) Most territories were recolonized in spring by at least one of the previous residents, so the population was in part migratory, at least locally. Winter loss was higher than in other years with good acorn crops. Juveniles were lost from the population at the highest rate, followed by non-breeding helpers and then breeders. (4) Aggressive interactions within groups that remained on their territories were intense and occurred when alternative food supplies were not available. Many subordinate individuals disappeared from groups following aggressive interactions with dominants. After food was added to one group there was no loss of group members and no observed aggressive interactions. (5) Acorn crops commonly fail in California, despite several oak species being present, and the food supply is a major limiting factor of the total population size of acorn woodpeckers.