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Avian Risk Assessment: Effects of Perching Height and Detectability


Daniel T. Blumstein, Department of Organismic Biology, Ecology and Evolution, 621 Young Drive South, University of California, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1606, USA. E-mail:


We studied two components of predator risk assessment in birds. While many species are limited to seeking safety under cover or under ground, some birds can fly away from their predators and escape to trees. If birds in fact ‘feel’ safer (e.g. perceive less risk) in trees, we would expect them to tolerate closer approach by a potential terrestrial predator. Another component of safety is at which point the animal detects an approaching threat, which we expected to increase with eye size, assuming eye size is a surrogate for visual acuity. We used the distance birds moved away from an approaching human [flight initiation distance (FID)] as a metric to determine whether birds associated a lower risk of predation by being in trees, and we used the distance at which birds first displayed alert behaviors from an approaching human (alert distance) to determine if birds with larger eyes had higher detection distances. Although some species were affected by tree height, we found no clear pattern that birds assessed themselves to be at a lower risk of predation when they were ≥3 m above the ground compared with being <3 m above ground. In the 10 species for which height had any significant effect on FID, birds ≥3 m off the ground had greater FIDs in six species, but the remaining three species had the opposite response. While we found a significant positive relationship between eye size and alert distance in 23 species, the relationship was not present in a phylogenetic analysis using independent contrasts, which suggests that the apparent relationship was influenced strongly by the association between the studied species. Together, these results suggest that birds do not obviously associate being in a tree with safety, and that variations in visual acuity, per se, cannot be used as a general indicator of differences in alert distances, as previously suggested in the literature.