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Innate and Learned Components of Defence by Flickers Against a Novel Nest Competitor, the European Starling


Karen L. Wiebe, Department of Biology, University of Saskatchewan, 112 Science Place, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada S7N 5E2. E-mail:


Defence against predators is an important component of fitness in wild birds but the first step of defence, predator recognition, is not well understood. Anti-predator behaviour may innate, in which case the individual responds without prior contact with that predator, and/or there may be a learned component that develops only after direct experience. In the wild, the development of anti-predator behaviour is studied by exposing naive individuals to novel predators. I studied responses of 71 naive and experienced northern flickers Colaptes auratus, to a novel nest predator and competitor, the European starling Sturnus vulgaris that was introduced to North America. Naive individuals responded more intensely to the model starling than to the control model suggesting an innate component to recognition. However, there was also a learned component to defence because flickers nesting near to starlings reacted more aggressively than naive individuals far from starlings. Consistent with theory on life histories and optimal defence levels, no significant differences in aggression were found between the sexes or between age classes. Selection should favour more intense, and possibly innate, defence against the introduced starling. Variation in responses of naive individuals suggests that there may already be some alleles in the population associated with higher defence, but that these may not be uniform within the population.