Fire, Florida Grasshopper Sparrow, Territory size, Economic defensibility


For most taxa, maximizing fitness depends on maintaining access to adequate resources. Territories provide exclusive use of resources for an individual or a family group, thus facilitating successful reproduction. The economic defensibility of a territory depends on the quality, abundance, and distribution of its resources as well as the amount of competition that an individual must endure to maintain exclusive access. The benefits of defense must outweigh the costs for territoriality to be profitable. Territory owners may benefit from territories with high quality resources, but they also may incur greater costs defending these resources from competitors. In contrast, territories with poor quality resources provide fewer benefits to an owner but also may have fewer competitors vying for those resources. Resource quality may change over time, especially in habitats in which periodic ecological disturbances, such as fire, occur. As a result, the cost-benefit equation of defensibility also changes over time. The Florida Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum floridanus), an Endangered subspecies, is a habitat specialist endemic to the Florida dry prairie, a pyrogenic ecosystem found only in south-central Florida. As a result A. s. floridanus has evolved with frequent fires and its demography is strongly influenced by the structural habitat characteristics, such as sparse woody vegetation and large amounts of bare ground that occur with frequent fire. The objective of my study was to determine what factors associated with fire (i.e. habitat structure and prey abundance) affected the "decisions" of male A. s. floridanus to defend a territory. I hypothesized that fire and the resources resulting from fire would have an impact on territory size and placement. I predicted that territories in more recently burned habitat would be of higher quality and that sparrows would avoid areas with a longer time since fire. I conducted my study at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park in Okeechobee County, FL. One half of my 100-ha study plot had experienced two growing seasons since the last fire and the remaining half had experienced only a single growing season since fire at the start of my study. I mapped territories of all males within my study plot twice over the breeding season; once during the early season (nest building and incubation) and once during the late season (nestling and fledgling stages). In addition, during each survey I collected arthropods and surveyed vegetation composition within territories and at random, unoccupied points within the study plot. I compared the differences between the habitat characteristics of territories and unoccupied areas, the differences between the territories of the males that occupied the two-year rough and those in the one-year rough, males that abandoned their territories mid-season and those that remained in the study plot, and the seasonal changes in territory characteristics between the early and late season territories of males that persisted. My results indicate that A. s. floridanus selects certain habitat characteristics in which to place territories. Males preferred areas with fewer shrubs and more bare ground, which is consistent with previous studies. Prey biomass did not differ between territories and unoccupied areas. Nonetheless, although the mean mass of individual arthropods was larger in unoccupied areas, the numerical abundance of orthopterans, damselflies, and spiders was significantly higher in territories than in unoccupied areas. Sparrows were more likely to abandon their territories if they occurred in the two-year rough as opposed to the one-year rough. Territories in the two-year rough were significantly larger, had poorer quality habitat, and tended to have less prey than those in the one-year rough. The sparrows that persisted throughout the season significantly increased their territory size in the late season; however, very little spatial shift occurred, suggesting that they merely increased their territory size rather than moved to new sites. Early-season territories in the one-year rough were completely exclusive, but late season territories showed considerable overlap, suggesting lack of defense and a shift toward home ranges as opposed to exclusive territories. The habitat quality in late-season territories decreased (more shrubs, less bare ground) from the early season. Unexpectedly, however, the biomass of prey increased. This increase coincides with an increased demand for prey because sparrows are provisioning young. It seems likely that the costs of defense increase at this time because time and energy spent in defense come at the expense of time spent provisioning young. Because prey increases in the late season, the need to defend exclusive territories may decline.


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Graduation Date



Noss, Reed


Master of Science (M.S.)


College of Sciences



Degree Program









Release Date

September 2009

Length of Campus-only Access


Access Status

Masters Thesis (Open Access)

Included in

Biology Commons