Times to extinction for small populations of large birds

Stuart L. Pimm, Jared Diamond, Timothy M. Reed, Gareth J. Russell, Jared Verner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

66 Scopus citations


A major practical problem in conservation biology is to predict the survival times - "lifetimes" - for small populations under alternative proposed management regimes. Examples in the United States include the 'Alala (Hawaiian Crow; Corvus hawaiiensis) and Northern Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis caurina). To guide such decisions, we analyze counts of all crow, owl, and hawk species in the most complete available data set: counts of bird breeding pairs on 14 European islands censused for 29-66 consecutive years. The data set yielded 129 records for analysis. We define the population ceiling as the highest number of breeding pairs observed from colonization to extinction, within a consecutive series of counts for a given species on a given island. The resulting distributions of population lifetimes as a function of population size prove to be highly skewed: most small populations disappear quickly, but a few last for a long time. Median (i.e., 50th percentile) lifetimes are calculated as only 1-5 yr for hawk, owl, and crow populations with ceilings of one or two breeding pairs. As expected if demographic accidents are the main cause of extinction for small populations, lifetimes rise by a factor of 3-4 for each additional pair up to three pairs. They rise more slowly thereafter. These observations suggest that lifetimes of the 'Alala (now reduced to about three pairs in the wild), and of populations of Northern Spotted Owl in the smallest forest fragments, will be short unless active management is implemented.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)10871-10875
Number of pages5
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number22
StatePublished - Nov 15 1993
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


  • Crow
  • Hawk
  • Owl
  • Population lifetime
  • Population size


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