White fronted bee-eaters (Merops bullockoides) live in extended family clans that aggregate to roost and nest in large colonies. Members of a given clan also share a common foraging territory, spatially segregated from the colony, to which they commute daily. The size of this foraging territory is positively related to clan size.
Clan foraging territories are divided into a number of loosely overlapping foraging home ranges (FHRs), each occupied by an individual or mated pair of birds. Bee-eaters feed solitarily, flycatching to snap up large insects from widely dispersed perches. Each bird tolerates intrusion on its FHR by various members of its own clan, but aggressively excludes individuals belonging to other clans. Birds defend only their own FHR; however, because of the high amount of FHR overlap, the result is a loose form of group defense of the larger clan feeding area. For this reason we refer to the system as one of clan foraging territories.
Birds occupying clan foraging territories located more than 1.5 to 2 km from a colony temporarily abandoned them while feeding nestlings. At such times, these birds provisioned their young by foraging near the colony. Birds that abandoned territories foraged less efficiently, provisioned nestlings at a lower rate, and had lower breeding success than did birds that continued use of their foraging territories. A model is developed relating territory abandonment to the energetics of central place foraging.
Bee-eaters typically shift colony locations between successive breeding seasons. Foraging territory locations, in contrast, remain largely stable, resulting in large and unpredictable changes in the quality of any given foraging territory across years (quality being defined as distance from the currently active nesting colony).
When a pair bond forms in bee-eaters, one member typically remains in its natal clan while the other moves into the clan of its partner. At this time, the new pair also establishes its own FHR, generally located within or on the periphery of the clan foraging territory of the natal member. The result of this settlement pattern is that white fronted bee-eaters live their lives spatially surrounded by members of their natal or their matrimonial clan. This, in turn, increases the likelihood of both mutualistic and nepotistic interactions among clan members. Such benefits include shared territory defense, enhanced security against predation, and maintenance of close social bonds with potential helpers.
We hypothesize that the adaptive value of clan foraging territories lies in long-term familiarity with a foraging area. Such familiarity was demonstrated to lead to improved foraging efficiency and hypothesized to provide both increased security from predation and a more accurate means of monitoring temporal changes in environmental quality.
The system of clan foraging territories found in white fronted bee-eaters differs from the all-purpose group territories of most other cooperative breeders studied to date in two important ways. First, foraging territories were not limiting in the sense of restricting dispersal and “forcing” offspring to remain with their natal clans. Unoccupied areas of seemingly suitable habitat were present throughout the study area at all times. Birds also showed no tendency to expand their boundaries or move into areas vacated when neighboring clans decreased in size or died off. Second, breeding status and foraging territory ownership are not linked in Merops bullockoides. All pairs defended foraging areas, yet only about 3/4 of them bred in any given year. This percentage did not differ significantly between pairs occupying high quality foraging territories (located near the active nesting colony) and pairs forced to abandon low quality foraging territories located more distantly. We conclude that foraging territories are not a critical ecological constraining factor for white fronted bee-eaters in Kenya.