Prey selection and foraging performance of breeding Great Tits Parus major in relation to food availability


  • Luzia Naef-Daenzer,

  • Beat Naef-Daenzer,

  • Ruedi G. Nager

L. Naef-Daenzer, B. Naef-Daenzer, Swiss Ornithological Institute, CH-6204 Sempach, Switzerland. E-mail:
R. G. Nager, Ornithology Group, Graham Kerr Building, Institute of Biomedical and Life Sciences, University of Glasgow, Glasgow G12 8QQ, Scotland, UK.


We studied the nestling diet and the foraging performance of Great Tits in relation to prey abundance in the field. Numerous experimental studies present data on foraging decisions in captive Great Tits. Little is, however, known about prey selection in the field in relation to the food available and the consequences this has for the food delivery rate to nestlings. Since the foraging performance of the parents is one of the main determinants of fledging weight and juvenile survival, foraging behaviour is an important part of Great Tit reproduction. During the early breeding season up to 75% of the prey biomass delivered to the nestlings were spiders, which is in contrast with other studies. Only when caterpillars reached a size of 10–12 mg (approximately the average size of the spiders caught at that time) did the Great Tits change their preferences and 80–90% of the delivered prey masses were caterpillars, as reported by other authors. This ‘switching’ between prey occurred within a few days. It was not related to the changes in abundance but to size of caterpillars. The rate at which caterpillars were delivered to the nestlings (in mg/nestling/h) was strongly correlated with the caterpillar biomass available (in mg/m of branches) and nestling growth rate was significantly influenced by the mass of available caterpillars. The results provide evidence why perfect timing of breeding is so important for the Great Tit, and contribute to the understanding of the causal link between food supply, growth and breeding success.