Invasion of an exotic forb impacts reproductive success and site fidelity of a migratory songbird

Yvette Katina Ortega, Kevin Scot McKelvey, Diana Lee Six

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

76 Scopus citations


Although exotic plant invasions threaten natural systems worldwide, we know little about the specific ecological impacts of invaders, including the magnitude of effects and underlying mechanisms. Exotic plants are likely to impact higher trophic levels when they overrun native plant communities, affecting habitat quality for breeding songbirds by altering food availability and/or nest predation levels. We studied chipping sparrows (Spizella passerina) breeding in savannas that were either dominated by native vegetation or invaded by spotted knapweed (Centaurea maculosa), an exotic forb that substantially reduces diversity and abundance of native herbaceous plant species. Chipping sparrows primarily nest in trees but forage on the ground, consuming seeds and arthropods. We found that predation rates did not differ between nests at knapweed and native sites. However, initiation of first nests was delayed at knapweed versus native sites, an effect frequently associated with low food availability. Our seasonal fecundity model indicated that breeding delays could translate to diminished fecundity, including dramatic declines in the incidence of double brooding. Site fidelity of breeding adults was also substantially reduced in knapweed compared to native habitats, as measured by return rates and shifts in territory locations between years. Declines in reproductive success and site fidelity were greater for yearling versus older birds, and knapweed invasion appeared to exacerbate differences between age classes. In addition, grasshoppers, which represent an important prey resource, were substantially reduced in knapweed versus native habitats. Our results strongly suggest that knapweed invasion can impact chipping sparrow populations by reducing food availability. Food chain effects may be an important mechanism by which strong plant invaders impact songbirds and other consumers.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)340-351
Number of pages12
Issue number2
StatePublished - Aug 2006


  • Centaurea maculosa
  • Food availability
  • Grasshoppers
  • Spizella passerina
  • Timing of breeding


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