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Foraging Decision Rules and Prey Species Preferences of Northwestern Crows (Corvus caurinus)


(Present address): Erin L. O'Brien, Ecosystem Science and Management Program, University of Northern British Columbia, 3333 University Way, Prince George, BC, Canada V2N 4Z9. E-mail:


Categorization of similar prey types and the application of decision rules by dietary generalists can enhance the efficiency of foraging decisions and facilitate the inclusion of novel prey types in the diet. While considerable research attention has been directed toward investigation of these concepts in invertebrates, few have assessed categorization and decision rules used by generalist vertebrate predators. In this study, we experimentally investigated decision rules and prey preferences of northwestern crows (Corvus caurinus) feeding on littleneck clams (Tapes philippinarum) and whelks (Nucella lamellosa). We presented crows with three species-size combinations: small clams (2.0–2.9 cm length) paired with large whelks (4.0–4.9 cm), small clams paired with medium whelks (3.0–3.9 cm), and large clams (4.0–4.9 cm) with large whelks. Profitability estimates based on observations of crows feeding on these prey species indicated that clams were always the more energetically profitable option; however, in prey choice trials crows consistently selected the heavier prey species, regardless of differences in profitability. These results show that crows apply a general decision rule according to which they select heavier prey items when feeding on hard-shelled prey requiring similar handling techniques, and that while such decision rules may approximate optimal choices they may not always follow predictions based solely on prey profitability. We discuss these results in the context of behavioural flexibility of generalist predators, and predicting impacts of intertidal avian predators on prey populations.