Body mass change strategies in blackbirds Turdus merula: the starvation–predation risk trade-off


R. Macleod, Division of Environmental and Evolutionary Biology, Institute of Biomedical and Life Sciences, Graham Kerr Building, University of Glasgow G12 8QQ, UK. E-mail:


  • 1It is theoretically well established that body mass in birds is the consequence of a trade-off between starvation risk and predation risk. There are, however, no studies of mass variation from sufficiently large wild populations to model in detail the range of diurnal and seasonal mass change patterns in natural populations and how these are linked to the complex environmental and biological variables that may affect the trade-off.
  • 2This study used data on 17 000 individual blackbirds Turdus merula to model how mass changes diurnally and seasonally over the whole year and over a wide geographical area. Mass change was modelled in respect of temperature, rainfall, day length, geographical location, time of day and time of year and the results show how these mass changes vary with individual size, age and sex.
  • 3The hypothesis that seasonal mass is optimized over the year and changes in line with predictors of foraging uncertainty was tested. As theory predicts, reduced day length and reduced temperature result in increased mass and the expected seasonal peak of mass in midwinter.
  • 4The hypothesis that diurnal mass gain is optimized in terms of starvation–predation risk trade-off theory was also tested. The results provide the first empirical evidence for intraspecies seasonal changes in diurnal mass gain patterns. These changes are consistent with shifts in the relative importance of starvation risk and predation risk and with the theory of mass-dependent predation risk.
  • 5In winter most mass was gained in the morning, consistent with reducing starvation risk. In contrast, during the August–November non-breeding period a bimodal pattern of mass gain, with increases just after dawn and before dusk, was adopted and the majority of mass gain occurred at the end of the day consistent with reducing mass-dependent predation risk. The bimodal diurnal mass gain pattern described here is the first evidence that bird species in the wild gain mass in this theoretically predicted pattern.