1. Populations of plants and animals typically fluctuate because of the combined effects of density-dependent and density-independent processes. The study of these processes is complicated by the fact that population sizes are typically not known exactly, because population counts are subject to sampling variance. Although the existence of sampling variance is broadly acknowledged, relatively few studies on time-series data have accounted for it, which can result in wrong inferences about population processes.
2. To increase our understanding of population dynamics, we analysed time series from six Central European populations of the migratory red-backed shrike Lanius collurio by simultaneously assessing the strength of density dependence, process and sampling variance. In addition, we evaluated hypotheses predicting effects of factors presumed to operate on the breeding grounds, at stopover sites in eastern Africa during fall and spring migration and in the wintering grounds in southern Africa. We used both simple and state-space formulations of the Gompertz equation to model population size.
3. Across populations and modelling approaches, we found consistent evidence for negative density-dependent population regulation. Further, process variance contributed substantially to variation in population size, while sampling variance did not. Environmental conditions in eastern and southern Africa appear to influence breeding population size, as rainfall in the Sahel during fall migration and in the south African wintering areas were positively related to population size in the following spring in four of six populations. In contrast, environmental conditions in the breeding grounds were not related to population size.
4. Our findings suggest negative density-dependent regulation of red-backed shrike breeding populations and are consistent with the long-standing hypothesis that conditions in the African staging and wintering areas influence population numbers of species breeding in Europe.
5. This study highlights the importance of jointly investigating density-dependent and density-independent processes to improve our understanding of factors influencing population fluctuations in space and time.