Do habitat preferences improve fitness? Context-specific adaptive habitat selection by a grassland songbird

Scott B. Maresh Nelson, Jaime J. Coon, James R. Miller

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Animals are predicted to prefer high-quality over low-quality habitats, but adaptive habitat selection is less straightforward than often assumed. Preferences may improve only specific fitness metrics at particular spatial scales, with variation across time or between sexes. Preferences sometimes even reduce fitness. We investigated the context specificity of adaptive habitat selection, studying dickcissels (Spiza americana)—a polygynous songbird—as a model. From 2014 to 2015, we measured male and female habitat preferences at two scales (territories and landscape patches) on 21 grassland patches in Ringgold County, Iowa, USA. We tested whether preferences improved four fitness metrics—polygyny, avoidance of brood parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater), fledgling productivity, and offspring condition. Both sexes preferred territories where offspring attained superior condition and patches where parasitism was infrequent. Females preferred patches where nests produced more fledglings, and in 2014, males on preferred (i.e., early-established) territories attracted more mates and produced more fledglings. However, males on non-preferred (i.e., late-established) territories were more successful in 2015. This inconsistency may have arisen because females were abundant and nest-predation rates were low in May–June 2014, allowing early-settling males to produce many young. In 2015, however, females were more abundant and nests more successful later in the breeding season. Our results show that habitat preferences do not uniformly improve fitness, and some benefits differ between sexes. Moreover, preference–fitness relationships only manifest at specific scales, and annual variation in population and predation dynamics can limit consistency. Detecting adaptive habitat selection thus requires multi-year measurements and careful consideration of relevant scales.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)15-26
Number of pages12
Issue number1
StatePublished - May 1 2020


  • Brown-headed cowbird
  • Dickcissel
  • Polygyny
  • Reproductive success
  • Scale dependence

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


Dive into the research topics of 'Do habitat preferences improve fitness? Context-specific adaptive habitat selection by a grassland songbird'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this