1. Understanding which factors regulate population dynamics may help us to understand how a population would respond to environmental change, and why some populations are declining.
2. In southern Finland, vole abundance shows a three-phased cycle of low, increase and decrease phases, but these have been fading out in recent years. During five such cycles (1981–1995), all tawny owls Strix aluco were censused in a 250-km2 study area, and their reproduction and survival were monitored.
3. Males and females showed similar dynamics, but experienced breeders recruited more offspring and had higher survival than first breeders. Offspring recruitment, but not survival of breeding individuals varied in accordance with vole abundance.
4. The population’s numerical response to prey abundance was primarily due to first-breeding individuals entering the population in the increase phase when immigration was the highest. First-breeding birds were younger, but experienced breeders were older in more favourable vole years.
5. A stage-specific matrix population model integrating survival and fecundity showed that, despite obvious variation in fecundity between vole cycle phases, this variation had limited importance for overall tawny owl population dynamics, but that the survival of experienced breeders during the low phase is most important for population growth.
6. Model and data agreed that the vole cycle drives the dynamics of this avian predator by limiting the recruitment of new breeders during the low phase. Population dynamics hence differ not only from the classic example of the species in a more temperate region in the UK where the number of territories is stable across years, but also from the dynamics of other avian vole predators in Fennoscandia where the recurring crash in vole abundance drastically lowers adult survival thereby creating vacancies.