Determining whether nesting attempts are successful can be difficult. Yet, current protocols for estimating nesting success do not address how uncertain nest fates should be handled. We examined the problem of nest-fate uncertainty as it relates to Mayfield estimation of nesting success and in analyses of factors that influence success. We used data from Minnesota to illustrate the potential effect of uncertain fate; 40% of Ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapillus; n = 127) nests and 30% of Least Flycatcher (Empidonax minimus; n = 144) nests had uncertain fates. How this uncertainty is incorporated into Mayfield estimates of success varied widely among researchers. In a survey of researchers who use the Mayfield method, 9 of 22 respondents (of 40 contacted) excluded nests with uncertain fate. Excluding uncertain fates is counter to how Mayfield first described his estimator and can result in severe downward bias. The remaining respondents (59%) included nests with uncertain fate but varied in how they terminated the exposure period. We developed a simulation model that calculated Mayfield estimates using different approaches and compared them with a known rate of nesting success. Magnitude of bias in Mayfield estimates varied considerably in our simulations. The approach with the least bias terminated exposure with the last observed active date for nests with uncertain fate, and with the midpoint between last observed active and first observed inactive dates for nests with known fate. In addition, information necessary to interpret and compare Mayfield estimates often is not reported. These values, including variance estimates and the period lengths used to estimate survival rates, should be reported with Mayfield estimates. Finally, nest fate is commonly used as a categorical variable in studies of factors affecting nesting success. In this approach, however, nests with uncertain fate must be excluded. An alternative approach is Cox regression, which incorporates nests with uncertain fate.
Additional publication details
Uncertain nest fates in songbird studies and variation in Mayfield estimation