• Frequency-dependent predation;
  • apostatic selection -anti-apostatic selection;
  • visual selection;
  • crypsis;
  • background tracking;
  • pastry prey;
  • colour polymorphism

Our aim was to test the effects of prey frequency and background composition on selection by free-ranging birds. We did three series of experiments with populations of grey and orange pastry prey scattered among coloured stones that made the prey either conspicuous or inconspicuous. Series 1 tested whether the predicted equilibrium frequency of the two prey types was influenced by the frequency of matching grey and orange stones. Birds at a single site were given a random sequence of combinations of prey frequency and stone frequency. Selection was dependent on background and the effect of prey frequency also varied with background. In series 2, we explored the frequency-independent effect of background: birds at five sites were given equal numbers of the two prey in three frequencies of matching stones and two of non-matching. There was a higher risk of predation for prey that matched rarer stones. In series 3 we attempted to measure, at a single site, the actual equilibrium prey frequencies in three different backgrounds: two extreme stone frequencies and one intermediate. Each experiment started with a population of equal numbers of grey and orange prey. After half the prey had been eaten we calculated the frequencies of the survivors and presented a new population of the original size but with the new prey frequencies; each experiment ran for 25 such ‘generations’. The results suggested that at equilibrium the commoner ‘morph’ was the one that resembled the commoner colour of stone. Overall, our findings support the idea that visual selection can result in morph frequencies becoming related to the proportions of their matching background components and that this equilibrium will ‘track’ temporal or spatial changes in the background.