Trade-offs between the risks of predation and starvation in subtropical granivorous finches
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Animal community structures, life histories and individual foraging behaviour are all an outcome of a trade-off between competition for resources (and thus the risk of starvation) and survival (and thus the risk of predation). The relative importance of these factors however, differs between ecosystems, and especially when comparing temperate to tropical ones, we usually find marked differences. The seasonality of tropical ecosystems is much reduced compared to temperate ones, and weather conditions are less extreme. Accordingly tropical systems are characterised by higher species diversity, and different life history traits have been found between temperate and tropical birds. However, how the different environmental factors interact, and how predation and starvation risk vary to cause these differences still remains largely unknown. We studied the feeding behaviour of several granivorous Estrildid finches in scrub savannah habitat in central Nigeria to test how they respond to varying degrees of starvation and predation risk. During field observations and aviary experiments we investigated whether there is seasonal variation in the birds’ foraging behaviour correlating with the abundance of grass seeds and tested how they respond to different group sizes and differing distances from cover (representing a difference in predation risk). Further we also carried out field observation on the natural feeding behaviour of several closely related sympartic Estrildid finches to investigate inter-specific and seasonal differences in competition and microhabitat choice to see if this could explain their coexistence. Finally we studied habitat choice, movement behaviour and breeding biology of the potentially threatened endemic Rock Firefinch (Lagonosticta sanguinodorsalis) between the wet and the dry season via radio-tracking to establish its habitat requirements and gain the first information in its life history traits and population trends. We found little seasonal variation in the species’ foraging behaviour, and parameters that varied did not do so in a consistent manner. Thus, we found little evidence for a seasonal change in the risk of starvation. However, the abundance of several bird species varied widely between seasons and species leaving during periods of food shortage might have released competition for remaining resources. Birds did not show a strong response in their feeding behaviour with respect to cover in either intake rate or timing of feeding. However, intake rate increased with group size, which we believe to be due to scramble competition rather than risk dilution. We therefore conclude that predation did not shape the foraging behaviour of tropical granivorous passerines as markedly as that of temperate ones. Rock Firefinches were found to breed between the late rainy and the early dry season. They selected inselberg habitat, where most nests were found between rocky boulders. During the dry season, when water sources in inselberg habitat had dried out, they had to fly distances of up to 700 m to the gallery forest to get water and this led to the inclusion of more scrub savannah and gallery forest within their home ranges. Daily egg survival was 0.89 ± 0.03 calculated after the Mayfield analysis and most failing nests were depredated probably mainly by lizards. We suggest that in addition to nest predation, water availability might limit breeding time and thus reproductive output of Rock Firefinches. Predation risk did not seem to be of high importance in shaping the birds’ feeding behaviour because there was no seasonal variation in the risk of starvation. We found some suggestive evidence that competition might be important and it is likely that bird populations constantly stay close to carrying capacity. In contrast to temperate regions the need to conserve water might be of higher importance in shaping the birds’ feeding behaviour. High adult survival rates might be due to reduced seasonality in the risk of starvation thereby leading to reduced predation risk on adult birds. High nest predation might also be of higher importance in shaping the life history traits of tropical passerines, but at present this suggestion remains speculative. The results fit into the general framework that there is a trade-off between starvation and predation risk, and in the absence of starvation risk for some species in tropical areas, predation risk is also relatively unimportant.
Thesis, PhD Doctor of Philosophy
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