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Keywords:

  • Accipiter nisus;
  • demography;
  • generalist predation;
  • global change;
  • growth rate;
  • predator pit;
  • prey community

Summary

1.  Changes in community composition are expected to entail cascading effects at different trophic levels within a food web. However, empirical evidence on the impact of changes in prey communities on the population dynamics of generalist predators, and on the extent of possible feedback processes, remains scarce.

2.  We analysed the dynamics of a generalist predator, the European sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus L., in a rural area of Northern Denmark. Over a 20-year period, the diet of the predator has been thoroughly assessed (>30 000 identified prey items) and quantitative information about its avian prey community, based on standard breeding bird surveys, has revealed significant trends for several passerine species, although the overall prey biomass available remained stable.

3.  The growth rate of the sparrowhawk breeding population was negatively related to the previous sparrowhawk density and to winter temperature, but was positively related to available prey biomass. Contrary to expectations for a generalist predator, sparrowhawks seemed to be predominantly sensitive to changes in the cumulative abundance of their two main prey species, the skylark Alauda arvensis L. and the blackbird Turdus merula L., but less so to changes in the wider prey community.

4.  In demographic terms, the two-phase sparrowhawk dynamic recorded here (a recovery following an initial decrease) was mainly driven by recruitment of yearling females into the breeding population rather than by variation in the apparent survival of breeding females.

5.  Our findings emphasize that changes in the composition of a prey community, affected by environmental changes, impacted population dynamics of a generalist predator. Finally, we found conditions that might enable apparent competition between blackbirds and song thrushes Turdus philomelos L. to occur. High blackbird abundance, maintaining sparrowhawks at a relatively high density may, in turn, push song thrushes into a predator pit.