First Advisor

Michael T. Murphy

Term of Graduation

Spring 2022

Date of Publication


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (M.S.) in Biology







Physical Description

1 online resource (x, 141 pages)


The reproductive success of birds is ultimately driven by the traits of nests, eggs, and incubation behavior and the interactions among them. Avian reproduction varies on large geographic scales, most prominently between tropic- vs. temperate-breeding species, but also on finer scales, such as along latitudinal and elevational geographic gradients. However, despite the importance of eggs and nests, how their traits vary geographically in response to differences in regional climate remains understudied.

We studied Eastern Kingbirds (Tyrannus tyrannus), which have been previously demonstrated to alter incubation length in response to local climate conditions. Our study sites, Kansas (KS), New York (NY), South Dakota (SD), and Louisiana (LA) were chosen to represent a range of latitudes and climates. Our analysis of study site climate during the breeding season (April - July) showed that NY had the coldest mean temperature and most frequent precipitation, while LA had the warmest mean temperature and least cloud cover. SD and KS represented the climate of the Great Plains with moderately warm temperatures and higher wind speeds.

We collected the nests of kingbirds breeding in NY, SD, and LA to test our predictions that kingbirds breeding in colder, more northern climates would build larger nests with thicker walls, smaller nest cup openings, and greater insulative capacities than kingbirds breeding in warmer, more southern climates. We found that SD nests were the heaviest, with the thickest walls, greatest cup volumes, and smallest relative cup openings, while LA nests had the thinnest walls and largest relative cup openings. NY nests were intermediate. Nests at all sites were composed of mainly fine stems and rootlets, forb stems, and plant down, followed by coarse woody stems, though material composition varied greatly within populations.

Experiments measuring rate of heat loss from nests in environmentally controlled chambers revealed that the insulative capacity of nests only differed across sites when nest cup openings were covered. LA nests were less well insulated than SD and NY nests. We used principal components analysis (PCA) to reduce dimensionality of nest structure and material composition variables to PC axes, which we included in best subsets regressions to model predictors of nest insulative quality. For all sites, nests with the greatest insulative capacity had small nest cup openings relative to nest cup volume and were larger overall, but insulative capacity was not significantly related to material composition of nests. When we considered only SD and NY nests, we found that shallow nests with asymmetrical cup openings and low cup volume were the most insulative, as well as nests composed of plant down, fine stems and rootlets, and coarse woody stems.

We also studied variation of kingbird eggs from KS, NY, SD, and LA to perform the first analysis of intraspecific geographic variation of egg components and egg mass. We test our predictions that birds breeding in colder, more northern climates would lay heavier eggs with greater yolk content than birds breeding in warmer, more southern climates. We also predicted that egg mass would correlate directly with clutch size, reflecting a resource-based response to female reproductive investment, or negatively with clutch size, reflecting a trade-off in reproductive investment. We found that egg mass did not vary across sites, but that dry yolk mass was greater in NY than LA, which we posit supports the longer incubation period of NY kingbirds that has been demonstrated in previous work. Neither egg mass nor egg composition was correlated with clutch size, suggesting that environmental factors, and potentially unaccounted-for temporal effects, drive geographic differences in egg contents. Notably, eggs across sites were composed differently as egg mass increased. In other words, kingbirds build larger eggs differently depending on the population. KS and LA kingbirds increased mainly albumen and yolk, respectively, as egg mass increased, whereas NY and SD kingbirds added albumen and yolk in roughly equal amounts. The basis for these different allocation patterns is unknown and, moreover, it remains to be determined whether these are fixed differences among sites or if they reflect a proximate response to prevailing environmental conditions at the time of laying. While adaptive interpretations of the site differences in egg composition are possible, our results, more than anything, graphically highlight our very limited understanding of egg production in wild birds and that it is unsafe to assume that equally sized eggs provide the same amounts of energy (yolk) and protein (albumen) to embryos.


In Copyright. URI: This Item is protected by copyright and/or related rights. You are free to use this Item in any way that is permitted by the copyright and related rights legislation that applies to your use. For other uses you need to obtain permission from the rights-holder(s).

Persistent Identifier

Available for download on Tuesday, June 13, 2023