Clutch sizes of temperate-nesting dabbling ducks vary widely within and between years. Biologists have long been interested in why such patterns exist but have had difficulty separating intrinsic effects from environmental influences. In an attempt to gain greater insight into the roles of intrinsic and environmental influences on clutch sizes of dabbling ducks, we compared clutch-size patterns of mallard, northern pintail, gadwall, northern shoveler, and blue-winged teal in North Dakota and South Dakota over a 3-year period. The study was conducted during 1993-1995 when wetland habitat conditions were exceptionally consistent within time intervals but varied widely from the onset to the end of the study. We found that clutch sizes of gadwall and blue-winged teal were significantly smaller at the onset of nesting in 1993, when water conditions remained relatively poor following a 5-year drought (1988-1992), and pintail clutch sizes were larger late in the breeding season in 1993 after wetland conditions became exceptionally productive following heavy rains in late May and June. These findings were associated with gadwall and teal relying primarily on nutrients acquired on the breeding grounds to produce early clutches, and pintails using an exceptionally high proportion of their body lipids to produce early clutches, making this species highly dependent on abundant local sources of lipids for clutches produced later. Mallard, pintail, and shoveler rely largely on endogenous lipids carried to the breeding grounds to produce early clutches, and at least in the years of study, clutch sizes exhibited minimal variation at the onset of nesting. Our findings, when examined in context with existing information, suggest that interspecific variation in clutch sizes results from innate differences in several traits -- including body size, diet, timing of lipid acquisition, and nesting-- that affect the amount of lipid available for egg production. Annual differences in clutch sizes of all five species were not significant when effects of annual variation in nest initiation dates was accounted for, reflecting the key role of environmental influences on intraspecific variation among years.
Additional publication details
Patterns of variation in clutch sizes in a guild of temperate-nesting dabbling ducks