Non-independence of demographic parameters: positive density-dependent fecundity in eagles


*Correspondence author. E-mail:


  • 1Using information on the Doñana population of Spanish imperial eagles Aquila adalberti from 1959 to 2004, we present strong empirical support to theoretical models on the regulation of population trajectories by the relationships between breeder mortality and floater availability.
  • 2During the study period, the eagle population showed three distinct phases: (i) a population increase with negative density-dependent fecundity; (ii) a period of stability without any relationship between density and fecundity; and (iii) a population decrease with a positive relationship between density and fecundity.
  • 3A dramatic increase in annual adult mortality due to an increase in poisoning in hunting areas surrounding the Doñana National Park was recorded. The use of poison against generalist predators accounted for more than 54% of the total number of breeding eagles found dead since 1990, increasing annual adult mortality from 6·07 to 12·01%.
  • 4This high mortality reduced the population annually by 6% during the 1992–2004 period. Also, the population changed from a negative to a positive relationship between density and fecundity (Allee effect). These trends made the population approach extinction due to the double effect of increasing breeder mortality and low availability of floaters.
  • 5A supplementary feeding programme established in 1990 did not increase fecundity because it was a consequence of high adult mortality rather than low food availability. The high mortality of adults increased the risk of breeding failure and also decreased the availability of floaters, decreasing the likelihood of mate substitution.
  • 6Synthesis and applications. The main target in species conservation management plans is often a single demographic parameter (typically, fecundity in raptor populations). Our research demonstrates, however, that demographic parameters must not be considered as independent variables when formulating management programmes. The essential relationship between adult mortality and the availability of floaters must be better understood to avoid the risk of implementing inefficient management strategies. Although fecundity was low in this eagle population, it was a result of high adult mortality rates. Consequently, management must aim to correct the unusual mortality and recover the floater population.