Prey abundance and the strength of interference in a foraging shorebird


‡ Correspondence author: Dr R.A. Stillman, Institute of Terrestrial Ecology, Furzebrook Research Station, Wareham, Dorset BH20 5AS, UK. Tel: 01929 551518. E-mail:


Interference is an important component of food competition but is often difficult to detect and measure in natural animal populations. Although interference has been shown to occur between oystercatchers Haematopus ostralegus L. feeding on mussels Mytilus edulis L., four previous studies have not detected interference between oystercatchers feeding on cockles Cerastoderma edule L. In contrast, this study detected interference between cockle-feeding oystercatchers in the Baie de Somme, France. Prey stealing (kleptoparasitism), one of the main causes of interference between mussel-feeders, also occurred between oystercatchers in the Baie de Somme. The kleptoparasitism rate was related to the natural variation in the food supply, tending to be higher when cockles were rare. Feeding rate was negatively related to competitor density, so providing evidence for interference, but, as in mussel-feeders, only above a threshold density of about 50–100 birds ha−1. The strength of interference at a fixed competitor density was related to the cockle food supply, usually being greater when cockles were rare. Previous studies probably failed to detect interference between cockle-feeders because competitor densities were too low, or cockles were too abundant, or because they were not conducted during late winter when interference is most intense. The study shows that natural variation in the food supply can influence the strength of interference within an animal population and provides support for those behaviour-based interference models which predict that the strength of interference will be greatest when competitor densities are high and prey scarce.