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Breeding success, nest site fidelity and mate fidelity in the European Storm-petrel Hydrobates pelagicus

Marie Mariné and Bernard Cadiou*

* Correspondence author. Email:

Bretagne Vivante - SEPNB, 19 route de Gouesnou, BP 62132, F-29221 BREST cedex 2, France.

Full paper


The European Storm-petrel Hydrobates pelagicus is a monogamous and long-lived species with a low reproductive rate. Its nest sites are located in natural cavities under rocks or in burrows excavated by other species. Data obtained in the Molène archipelago, western France, have been analysed to study nest site fidelity and mate fidelity, and to study their relationship with breeding success and sex. Breeders were ringed and breeding success assessed from 2001–18. The influence of age and the weight of breeders on reproductive success has also been studied. Individuals were very faithful to their nest sites (94%) and to their mates (95%) from one year to the next. Breeding failure in the year t was negatively correlated with nest site fidelity and with mate retention in year t+1. Nest site fidelity was not influenced by the sex of breeding birds. Change of nest site or mate had no significant impact on the breeding success in the same year. There was a positive effect of the weight of incubating adults on reproductive success. High rates of nest site fidelity and mate fidelity may indicate good population status, with breeding habitat and mates of good quality.


The breeding success of seabirds depends on many factors, including their habitat, breeding site, mate and experience (Bried & Jouventin 2002). The choices of nest site and mate are important because they will influence an individual’s long-term reproductive performance. Thus, nest sites offering greater protection against predators and bad weather will be selected, as well as high-quality mates (Bourgeois et al. 2014; Michielsen et al. 2019). Birds use their previous breeding experience of a site, with their partner, to determine the quality of the site and the partner, which will influence their decision to retain it or to leave (Switzer 1993). Breeding success can be considered as the main factor influencing nest site fidelity and mate fidelity in Procellariiformes (Bourgeois et al. 2014). Breeding failure may lead to a higher probability of changing nest site and partner, in an attempt to improve the results of future breeding attempts (González-Solís et al. 1999). These changes make it possible to avoid the repetition of poor breeding performance with a nest site or a partner of poor quality (Bried & Jouventin 2002). But these changes only occur when their benefits outweigh their costs (Ens et al. 1993). Dispersal and divorce costs involve the search for a new site and a new partner, and the risk of acquiring one of lower quality (Kim et al. 2007), the risk of non-breeding over one or more years, and the risk of low breeding success in the first year at a new nest site or with a new partner (Naves et al. 2007). Nest site fidelity and mate fidelity are therefore very important for seabirds, which are mostly monogamous and long-lived species. Breeding success is associated with strong nest site fidelity and mate fidelity (Bried et al. 2003). High fidelity allows for a better understanding of the surrounding environment, which includes their neighbours, competitors, predators and protective nest characteristics, improved coordination between breeding adults of their incubation routine and foraging, and breeding earlier in the season (Switzer 1993; Bried & Jouventin 2002).

In Procellariiformes, fidelity is very high, especially for cavity-nesting species (Bried et al. 2003). Procellariiformes have a low reproductive rate, and non-breeding years, due to a change of nest or partner, can have a significant impact on individual fitness (Jouventin & Bried 2001). However, the relationship between nest and partner fidelity is not well understood. For Procellariiformes, mate fidelity may depend on nest site fidelity, as the nest is the meeting point for breeding individuals returning from their wintering areas to their colony (Davies 1957; Cézilly et al. 2000). However, some studies contradict this and suggest that mate fidelity does not depend on the breeding site and is instead an active process aiming to increase breeding success (Pyle et al. 2001; Bried & Jouventin 2003).

Site fidelity and mate fidelity influence breeding success, but these are not the only factors that come into play (Naves et al. 2006). The body condition of breeding adults, as well as their age and experience, can also influence breeding success. Indeed, life history theory predicts that body mass is positively correlated with reproductive effort (Williams 1966). Body mass can therefore predict breeding success (Chastel et al. 1995). Age also influences reproductive performance in long-lived bird species such as Procellariiformes; older individuals tend to have higher breeding success and be more faithful to their nest site and their partner (Pyle et al. 2001; Kim et al. 2007).

The European Storm-petrel Hydrobates pelagicus (hereafter Storm-petrel) is a procellariiform. It is a monogamous species, with a long lifespan and a low reproductive rate. It always nests under cover, in natural cavities under rocks or in burrows excavated by other species. The species is classified as “vulnerable” on the French Red List, “endangered” on the Brittany Red List and also listed in Appendix 1 of the European Birds Directive (Cadiou et al. 2019). The world population is estimated at between 430,000 and 520,000 pairs (IUCN 2018).

In this study, we examine breeding success and associated rates of nest site fidelity and mate fidelity in the Storm-petrel, specifically analysing the impact of breeding success in year t on fidelity in year t+1 and potential differences according to sex, the impact of fidelity in year t on breeding success in year t, as well as the impact of the age and weight of breeding adults on breeding success.


This work was carried out by Marie Mariné as part of an internship for a Master’s of Science at Poitiers University, France, with funding from the French Agency for Biodiversity, Iroise Marine Nature Park, under a seabird research and development contract with Bretagne Vivante, and from the Conseil Départemental du Finistère, the landowner of the Iroise National Nature Reserve. Rings were provided by the Centre de Recherches sur la Biologie des Populations d’Oiseaux (CRBPO). We are very grateful to the personnel of Iroise Marine Nature Park as well as to all the volunteers involved annually in fieldwork. Many thanks to Tony Williams for improving the manuscript’s English and to the two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments.


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