BIO 554/754

Territoriality & Coloniality

An updated version of these notes can be accessed from a new "Avian Biology' page


 A 'territory' can be defined as any defended area & most birds are territorial (in the sense that they defend some area, even if just a nest site) for at least during part of their annual cycle. The advantage or benefit of defending a territory is that the 'owner' has access to a resource or more of a resource (or access to a better quality resource) than they would otherwise have. Territories may be classified based on what resource (or resources) is(are) being defended:

Male Red-winged Blackbirds establish and defend 'Type B' territories with clearly delineated boundaries during the breeding season. All activities occur within territories, but males and females also forage, engage in sexual chases, seek extra-pair copulations, and prospect for other breeding opportunities outside territorial boundaries. Extent of off-territory foraging varies among nesting habitats and locations. Defense is based on conspicuousness, song and visual display, and aggressive responses to persistent trespassers. Mean territory size is approximately 2,000 square meters, but size varies greatly; territories are smaller in marsh than upland habitats.

Winter territories of Hermit Thrushes (Brown et al. 2000) -- Many species, including perhaps a majority of non-flocking migrant passerine species, establish resource-based territories that are defended for at least part of the winter. Territory defense and exclusion based only on resource availability are likely indicators that habitat availability and food resources are limiting factors during the winter. Several detailed investigations of territorial wintering migrants have revealed that dominant individuals are able to maintain stable territories throughout the winter, while some subordinate birds are forced into a non-territorial strategy in search of resources. Floater (non-territorial) behaviors have only recently been recognized within wintering populations, although the behavior may be as common as on the breeding grounds. Floaters are also considered indicators of habitat and/or food resource limitation, providing important insight into a population's local distribution. 

    Brown et al. (2000) used radio-telemetry to measure Hermit Thrushes' movements and territoriality, and found that the thrushes saturated suitable patches in the study area. Hermit Thrushes established and maintained territories using the same agonistic behaviors described for breeding birds. A few non-territorial birds (14%) moved among occupied territories, but most were faithful to a larger neighborhood, apparently awaiting a territory vacancy. The behavior of Hermit Thrushes conformed to the emerging view that competition for spatially mediated resources on the wintering grounds, such as food or cover, contribute to limiting populations of many species of migrant passerines.

Photo by David Roemer

A. Movements of two floating and three territorial Hermit Thrushes 
in relation to 9 ha mist-net plot (box). Home range contours are 
also shown for territorial birds. Lines indicate movements 
between successive locations. B. Territory contours 
(95% hamonic mean method) of eight radio-tracked Hermit 
Thrushes showing variation in territory size and overlap
among neighbors. 

Costs & benefits of territorial defense

Defending a territory requires time & energy and may, if aggressive defense is needed, may pose some risk of injury (or, in extreme cases, even death). So, time, energy, & risk of injury are the 'costs' of territory defense. The improved access to resources (e.g., food, nest sites, or roost sites) represents the 'benefit(s)' of territory defense. Birds should only defend territories if the benefits of defense outweigh the costs. This idea of 'economic defendability' was first proposed by Jerram Brown (1964).

If a territory is 'economically defendable', the energy available in a territory should not be less than energy expended in territory defense. Gill and Wolf (1975) tested this hypothesis on Golden-winged Sunbirds:

  • Gill and Wolf found that when flowers in a sunbird's territory contained an average of:
  • Defense of a territory: In sum, territorial sunbirds:

    When should a bird defend a territory? What is the range of resource levels over which territory defense is worthwhile? What if resources are:

    For example, Gill & Wolf's (1975) study of Golden-winged Sunbirds: So, when resource levels (e.g., nectar) are high, the cost of defense likely exceeds potential benefits.

    Territoriality and Reproductive Success

        Many birds defend territories only during the breeding period, and these territories often include resources, such as food or nesting sites, necessary for successful reproduction. In polygynous species, differences in the quality of territories may influence the number of mates a male obtains. For example, male Dickcissels (Spiza americana) with better quality territories (greater vegetation density) may attract more mates those those with lower quality territories. In socially monogamous species, territory quality can also influence reproductive success (e.g., Przybylo et al. 2001).


    How do birds defend territories?

    Population density & territorial behavior

    How territorial behavior might limit density:

    1) Jerram Brown (1969) suggested that, in any given area, habitats available to breeding birds vary in quality, ranging from very high quality habitats to habitats unsuitable for breeding:

    2) Steven Fretwell (1972) proposed that, in any given area, habitats vary in quality or suitability, ranging from good (e.g., Rich habitat in the diagram below) to poor. In addition, the 'suitability' (in terms of the fitness a bird could attain or, in the diagram below, rewards per individual) of habitats decreases with increasing population densities (more birds means fewer resources per bird). So, when densities are high in the good (or rich) habitats, a bird may do better by occupying the lower quality, or poor, habitat (as long as densities are still low there). As a result, birds are not necessarily prevented from breeding (or become floaters) but simply settle where they can attain the highest fitness.

    For many species, it appears that Brown's model may best explain the influence of territorial behavior on population size. For example, a population of Song Sparrows on an island off the coast of British Columbia has been studied for several years (Smith et al. 1991).

    Strategies of male floaters -- Male birds lacking a home nest ('floaters') were previously thought to be young, lower quality or subordinate individuals that could not compete with senior males for a territory, a nest, or a mate. But Kempenaers et al. (2000) found that some floaters are fit enough to breed -- they are just not as fit as those males with mates. Kempenaers et al. (2000) studied mating behaviour and paternity in Tree Swallows, and found fewer paired males copulating with paired females than could account for all the 'illegitimate' offspring. Analysis revealed that male floaters were responsible for up to a quarter of extra-pair offspring. Kempenaers et al. (2000) also found that single males reproduce more than stay-at-home (faithful) males, but less than unfaithful, straying males. Which is surprising, "since most arguments about the benefits to females of having extra-couple offspring focus on possible genetic benefits," Birkhead remarks. "It is counter-intuitive to have females being fertilized by sub-optimal males". Kempenaers and colleagues are now trying to understand what benefits promiscuity holds for female swallows, which share family duties with their male partners. "We have shown that eggs are more likely to hatch in nests containing illegitimate young; and sperm from different males is present on the shell of every single egg," Kempenaers explains. This suggests that promiscuity might be a way for females to select the fittest young, and that selection could occur at the stage of sperm-egg interaction. -- Valerie Depraetere, Nature Science Update

    Colonial nesting:

    Colonial nesting in Yellow-headed Blackbirds -- Yellow -headed Blackbirds (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus) in Manitoba breed in dense colonies in cattail marshes. Their reproductive success is affected mainly by predation. The most important predator on blackbird nests is the Marsh Wren (Cistothorus palustris), which breaks blackbird eggs and kills small nestlings. Picman et al. (2002) examined whether colonial nesting in Yellow-headed Blackbirds may represent an adaptation to reduce Marsh Wren predation. Marsh Wren predation may be reduced by (1) mutual nest defense by adult blackbirds, (2) predator satiation or dilution, or (3) selfish-herd effects. They tested these hypotheses using experimental nests and found that their safety increased with decreasing distance to the nearest blackbird nest and with increasing density of simultaneously active blackbird nests located nearby. Safety also was higher for nests placed inside a blackbird colony rather than outside. These findings support the nest-defense hypothesis. Picman et al. (2002) also found that Marsh Wrens are capable of destroying a whole blackbird colony in a few days, and that colony size is not correlated with nest safety. These results suggest that the satiation or dilution benefits are negligible. Finally, they found that central nests were safer than peripheral nests in a blackbird colony, but not in an artificial colony, providing weak support for the selfish-herd hypothesis. Picman et al. (2002) concluded that nest predation is reduced mainly by mutual nest defense of adult birds and may represent an important selective force favoring colonial nesting in this species.

    Male Yellow-headed Blackbird

    Marsh Wren
    Photo by Jim Stasz

    On balance, for several species of birds, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

    Genes Drive Cliff Swallows in Group Choice - In the classic debate of nature versus nurture, Brown & Brown (2000) have scored one for heredity - at least when it comes to Cliff Swallows. Their study suggests that genes guide Cliff Swallows when selecting the size of colony in which to live. "We clearly found that individuals have a genetic basis as to where they choose to live," said Charles Brown, who has studied Cliff Swallows along the Platte River in Nebraska for 19 years. The Browns switched almost 2,000 young birds from nests in big colonies to nests in small colonies (& vice versa), & discovered that when these birds returned about 9 months later to select their own nest sites, they chose the same colony size as that in which they were born. "Our study suggests that there is a genetic difference between birds that choose to live in large groups versus birds that choose to live in small colonies," Brown said. "They return to where they were born irrespective of where they were raised. They are picking the colonies that their parents picked; so it is not environment, it is genes that appear to be dictating their choice." 

    Literature cited:

    Brown, J. 1969. Territorial behavior and population regulation in birds: a review and re-evaluation. Wilson Bull. 81:293-329.

    Brown, C.R. and M.B. Brown. 2000. Heritable basis for choice of group size in a colonial bird. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 97:14825-14830.

    Brown, D. R., P. C. Stouffer, and C. M. Strong. 2000. Movement and territoriality of wintering Hermit Thrushes in southeastern Louisiana. Wilson Bulletin 112:347-353.

    Fretwell, S.D. 1972. Populations in a seasonal environment. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.

    Gill, F.B. and L.L. Wolf. 1975. Economics of feeding territoriality in the Golden-winged Sunbird. Ecology 56:333-345.

    Kempenaers, B., S. Everding, C. Bishop,  P. Boag, & R.J. Robertson. 2000. Extra-pair paternity and the reproductive role of male floaters in the tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor). Behavioral Ecology and Sociology (2000).

    Picman, J., S. Pribil, and A. Isabelle. 2002. Antipredation value of colonial nesting in Yellow-headed Blackbirds. Auk 119:461-472.

    Przybylo, R., D.A. Wiggins, and J. Merilä. 2001. Breeding success in Blue Tits: good territories or good parents?  J. Avian Biol. 32: 214-218.

    Smith, J.N.M. et al. 1991. Social behaviour and population regulation in insular bird populations: implications for conservation. Pp. 148-167 in Bird Population Studies: Relevance to Conservation and Management. Perrins, et al. eds. Oxford Univ. Press.

    More lecture notes:

    Mating Systems

    Useful links:


    Sandpipers, Social Systems, and Territoriality

    Territorial Dynamics and Spatial Utilization of a Fragmented Habitat by Coastal Cactus Wrens (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus)

    Territoriality I

    Territoriality II

    Back to BIO 554/754 Syllabus