Theses and Dissertations


Issuing Body

Mississippi State University


Vilella, Francisco J.

Committee Member

Bildstein, Keith L.

Committee Member

Rush, Scott A.

Committee Member

Street, Garrett M.

Committee Member

Therrien, Jean-François

Date of Degree


Original embargo terms

Campus Access Only 2 Years

Document Type

Dissertation - Campus Access Only


Forest Resources

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D)


College of Forest Resources


Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Aquaculture


The spatial and population dynamics of avian scavengers are poorly understood. This information is key for management and conservation interventions that guarantee long-term species conservation. My goal in this dissertation is to fill information gaps on the movement ecology of New World vultures using the Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) as a model species. I used a continental-wide satellite telemetry dataset to study the migration ecology, space-use, and demography of the three North American breeding populations of Turkey Vultures wintering in the Neotropics during a 17-year period. I found that primary productivity, but not weather, triggered Turkey Vulture migratory behavior, migration initiated when primary productivity dropped at the end of the breeding and non-breeding season. Migratory connectivity was high at the species level (0.85, 95% CI: 0.74–0.94). However, I found evidence of intrapopulation segregation during the non-breeding season demonstrated by lower values of migratory connectivity in each population. I investigated how seasonality interacted with human disturbance, landscape composition and configuration to mediate patterns of geographic and environmental space-use, and annual and seasonal survival probabilities. Environmental space-use was best explained by landscape configuration. Geographic space-use exhibited a quadratic response to landscape configuration metrics, suggesting that Turkey Vultures maximize space-use in landscape with intermediate disturbance. Human disturbance, but not but not landscape composition and configuration, influenced survival rates in space and time. Overall annual survival averaged 0.87 (95% CI = 0.74 – 0.98). Mortality risk was low in western and central populations but was 3.7 times greater for vultures in the eastern population. Risk of mortality for all vulture populations increased with road density, and this was greater during the non-breeding and return migration seasons. My results suggest that spatial and population dynamics are affected at a continental scale by the energy landscape, intermediate disturbance and human disturbance. My dissertation emphasizes the importance of an integrative empirical-modeling approach to address questions on effects of resources availability and search efficiency in the spatial and population dynamics of avian scavengers.