Abstract and Summary

How a Common Tern (Sterna hirundo) Colony Defends itself against Herring Gulls (Larus argentatus)

The subject of this study is the anti-predator behaviour of a small common tern colony near a large herring gull colony on the island of Mellum, West Germany (Fig. 1). In 1980 the number of gulls crossing this tern colony increased during the terns' chick-stage (Fig. 4). Observed predation of tern chicks was independent of tide and time of day (3., Fig. 5). The frequency of tern reactions corresponded to the number of herring gull crossings (Fig. 5, Table 1). The terns' responses increased between morning and evening (Fig. 8).

Tern up-flights and attacks increased absolutely and as a percentage, with the advance of the breeding season (Fig. 3, 4). They were positively correlated with the observed chick predation and the number of pairs with chicks, most markedly with chicks older than 5 days (Figs. 3, 4; Table 1). This increased defence was maintained by fewer pairs as, by then, many had lost their own broods (Fig. 4). As the breeding season progressed, herring gulls increasingly became the main cause of tern up-flights and the object of the attacks (Figs. 9–11). The up-flights of the whole colony, which occurred frequently and spontaneously during incubation, were observed only rarely after hatching and were almost exclusively a response to herring gulls (Figs. 10, 12).

The lower herring gulls flew over the colony, the more frequently common terns flew up or attacked and the more individuals were involved in these responses (Figs. 6, 13, 14). During the breeding period, communal up-flights and attacks by terns increased as a percentage (Figs. 12, 13, 15–17). Group-attacks effected changes in the gulls' flying-routes more often than did individual attacks (Fig. 18).

Despite the defence behaviour and its adaptation to the predation pressure, herring gulls often succeeded in robbing chicks. This is why the breeding success of the common tern was poor (< 0.4 chicks/nest). Possible reasons for this are discussed.