Optimal stopover model: A state-dependent habitat selection model for staging passerines

Adi Domer*, Ehud Vinepinsky, Amos Bouskila, Eyal Shochat, Ofer Ovadia

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


During their seasonal migration, birds stage in areas comprising stopover sites of varying quality. Given that migrating birds have a limited information about their environment, they may land at a low-quality stopover site in which their fuel deposition rate (FDR) is low. Birds landing at such sites should decide either to extend their stopover duration or to quickly depart in search for a better site. These decisions, however, strongly depend on their body condition upon landing. To understand the decision-making process of passerines within a stopover area, comprising stopover sites of varying quality, prior to the crossing of a large ecological barrier, we constructed a state-dependent habitat selection model. The model assumes that even if migrating birds have an expectation of encountered area quality, they cannot control for their initial landing site. Once landing, movement between low- and high-quality stopover sites will occur only if the body condition of these birds is high to the extent that they can entail the energetic cost of movement. Birds in the model aim to maximize their fuel load at the end of the stopover period, to suffice for successfully crossing a large ecological barrier. The model is based on empirical data on autumn migrating Blackcaps Sylvia atricapilla, collected at two important stopover sites in the Negev desert of Israel. Migrating passerines staging at these two sites differ in their FDR and body condition. The model shows that the optimal behaviour when arriving at a low-quality stopover site is to abandon it quickly. However, as lean individuals cannot entail the costs of searching for an alternative site, they have no other choice but to stay there even if their chances to successfully cross the Sahara Desert ahead are low. Our model can be applied to other ecological systems. Proper use of this model may allow good assessment of stopover site quality, as indicated by the bird's FDR, regardless of specific site characteristics. Hence, it can help applying targeted management decisions regarding the maintenance of stopover sites or establishment of new ones.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2793-2805
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Animal Ecology
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • bird migration
  • fuel deposition rate
  • site quality
  • state variable model
  • stochastic dynamic programing


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