Variation in daily and seasonal foraging routines of non-breeding barnacle geese (Branta leucopsis): working harder does not overcome environmental constraints


  • David R. Cope

    Corresponding author
    1. Institute of Zoology, Zoological Society of London, Regent's Park, London NWI 4RY, U.K.
    2. The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, Eastpark Farm, Caerlaverock, Dumfries, U.K.
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*All correspondence to current address: David R. Cope, The Macaulay Institute, Craigiebuckler, Aberdeen AB15 8QH, U.K. E-mail:


This study describes the changes in stored body fat in Svalbard barnacle geese Branta leucopsis over the non-breeding period, and uses behavioural patterns to explain the variation in body fat stores. It was predicted that foraging effort would: (1) increase at low food densities; (2) increase when days were short; (3) decrease in smaller flocks; (4) be bimodally distributed throughout the day for long days, but constant for short days. Time constraints were found to be the major driving force behind foraging decisions during the shortest days of mid-winter, whereas food density was found to drive decisions during longer days. Field observations of fat stores showed that fat was rapidly accumulated at the start and end of the non-breeding period, but that fat stores remained constant during mid-winter. It is suggested that day length prevented a positive fat storage rate in mid-winter through the limitation of foraging time, even though foraging effort was high during this period. During a single day, evidence for a bimodal foraging routine was found, where feeding activity was concentrated in the early morning and late afternoon periods. This pattern was found in the full range of day lengths, which suggests that even for short days, feeding must be interrupted so that other essential activities can be conducted. It is concluded that the behavioural choices of barnacle geese were constrained by environmental conditions, and that these behavioural patterns allow the variation in fat stores to be explained.