Risk-taking by female ducks: intra- and interspecific tests of nest defense theory

Mark R.L. Forbes, Robert G. Clark, Patrik J. Weatherhead, Terry Armstrong

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We tested several predictions of nest defense theory by observing variation in flushing distance and probability of nest abandonment within and between six species of waterfowl. In these species, only the females incubate eggs and attend offspring. First, we examined whether flushing distance by females varied in relation to clutch size, stage of incubation, and time of season, after controlling for the number of visits made to nests by observers. Revisits by observers appeared to affect flushing distance by females for reasons unrelated to the relative value of the current clutch. We found that as incubation progressed, females allowed observers to approach more closely before flushing from the nest. In some species, females with larger clutches allowed closer approaches to nests before flushing which was also consistent with nest defense theory. In contrast, time of season (Julian date) did not relate to flushing distance for any species. When species were compared, we found that species with moderate to high yearly mortality and high reproductive output per breeding attempt (e.g., northern shoveler and blue-winged teal) were less likely to abandon nesting attempts and exhibited "riskier" behavior (remained at nests when approached closely by observers) than species that had lower yearly mortality (e.g., mallard). Our results show that flushing distance and patterns of nest abandonment by female ducks conform to several predictions of nest defense theory.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)79-85
Number of pages7
JournalBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1994
Externally publishedYes


  • Life history theory
  • Observer effect
  • Parental investment
  • Predation risk
  • Waterfowl

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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