An individual behaviour-based model can predict shorebird mortality using routinely collected shellfishery data


Correspondence: Richard Stillman, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology Dorset, Winfrith Technology Centre, Winfrith Newburgh, Dorchester, Dorset DT2 8ZD, UK (e-mail


  • 1The debate over the interaction between shellfishing and shorebirds is long-running. Behaviour-based models predict how animal populations are influenced by environmental change from the behavioural responses of individual animals to this change. These models are a potential tool for addressing shellfishery problems, but to be of value they must produce reliable predictions using data that are readily available or can be collected relatively quickly.
  • 2We parameterized a behaviour-based model for the oystercatcher population of the Wash, UK, for 1990–99 using data from shellfishery (mussels and cockles), shorebird and climate monitoring schemes. During the 1990s the overwinter mortality rates of Wash oystercatchers varied widely. The model correctly identified the years in which the observed overwinter mortality was either low (1–2%) or high (10–26%) from annual variation in the food supply, oystercatcher population size and temperature.
  • 3Many oystercatchers were observed and predicted to die when only a fraction of the available food was consumed. Within the model at least, this was because interference competition excluded the least dominant birds from part of the food supply and the least efficient foragers died before the food supply was fully depleted. A simplified model, which excluded interference and individual variation, incorrectly predicted that all birds survived in all years. Models that exclude these two components of behaviour will tend to underestimate the effect of mussel and cockle food shortage on oystercatchers. Shellfishery management based on such predictions may cause high oystercatcher mortality rates even though enough food would appear to be reserved for the birds.
  • 4Synthesis and applications. This study shows how a behaviour-based model can be parameterized and predict annual variation in oystercatcher mortality using data routinely collected from the Wash. The principle on which the model is based, that animals behave in order to maximize their chances of survival and reproduction, applies to any system, and the shellfishery, bird and climate data used to parameterize the model are widely available. The model can be used to advise how to manage shellfisheries, by predicting the proportion of the stock that needs to remain unfished in order to maintain low oystercatcher mortality rates.