The Snail Kite (Rostrhamus sociabilis), an endangered hawk, has a unique mating system in Florida (Beissinger and Snyder 1987): when food is abundant, males or females desert their mates at nearly equal frequency (ambisexual mate desertion) in the midst of a nesting cycle. I examined the demographic and environmental constraints selecting for a clutch size that permits one parent to desert, yet optimizes the number of offspring produced by each parent. Demographic studies, conducted from 1979-1983, indicated that kites have (1) a very high nest failure rate (?= 68%) due most often to unstable nest sites and predation, (2) a variable nesting season (5-10 mo/yr), (3) an early age of first reproduction for a bird this size (10 mo), (4) a high degree of iteroparity (double and potentially triple clutching within a season), and (5) unstable populations. Both nesting success and population size were directly related to Everglades water levels and resultant snail densities. Kites responded to large annual changes in food abundance, not by adjusting clutch size but by deserting their mates and presumably attempting to renest. Kite demographic traits appear to be adaptations to or results of an uncertain environment. Based on 67 yr of Everglades water levels, environmental predictability, measured by spectral analysis and Colwell's (1974) index, was low and influenced by water management regimes: (1) water levels were lowered, (2) annual variation in levels increased and annual cycles became stronger, (3) the period length of long-term drought-flood cycles shifted from 10 or more yr toward 5 yr, and (4) levels became a less predictive cue for favorable nesting conditions. A potential evolutionary pathway from biparental care to mate desertion in Snail Kites is proposed. It is unlikely that mate desertion evolved solely from a context of conflict between the sexes, because kite nesting success is so low that it is probably maladaptive for a parent to desert and jeopardize the survival of any of its first brood. Instead, mate desertion behavior probably evolved in response to a smaller average clutch size; this would allow females to be highly iteroparous and avoid the costs of overinvestment, and should be strongly favored in a highly uncertain environment. Analysis of clutches in museum collections suggests that an apparent decline in clutch size may have occurred in Florida during the past century. The potential for ambisexual mate desertion to occur in other vertebrates is during the past century. The potential for ambisexual mate desertion to occur in other vertebrates is examined.
Additional publication details
Demography, environmental uncertainty, and the evolution of mate desertion in the snail kite