Patch use under predation risk often results in a change of feeding behaviour in the prey animals. However, such changes only appear if the animals are able to assess under which predation pressure they live. We investigated patch use of Mastomys natalensis under different conditions of avian predation pressure.
In replicated maize field plots in Morogoro, Tanzania, avian predators were allowed under natural conditions (control), attracted with perches and nest boxes or kept out with nets. During four one-week periods in late 1999, we measured rodent feeding decisions with the giving-up density (GUD) method. Trays with known amounts of millet seeds in sand were placed in pairs, one of them under a cover, the other one in the open. M. natalensis mice were expected to give up sooner in the open trays than in those with cover. We hypothesised that M. natalensis mice could assess the ambient predation pressure leading to larger difference in GUD between covered and non-covered trays in the plots where predators were attracted. We also made video recordings of the rodent activity at a pair of trays in each treatment.
The GUD-values were significantly lower for the covered trays but predation pressure did not affect this difference. The video observations showed that in the control and netted plots the animals visited trays equally frequently regardless of the cover, while the visits in the predator-attracted plots occurred significantly more often in the covered trays. We conclude that M. natalensis can assess the ambient predation pressure and adapt its behaviour at a feeding patch. However, the variation in predation pressure in our experiment was not obvious from the GUD. Moreover, we found a strong relation between rodent density and GUD, which may mask variations in perceived predation pressure. Similar GUD values may be reached in different ways and we present models to investigate whether animals’ decision to forage at a food patch is only affected by the seed density at that patch, not by that at a neighbour patch.