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Abstract

Several observational studies have found that the costs and benefits of social foraging vary as a function of spatial position in the group. However, it is difficult to make mechanistic inferences because several confounding factors, such as food deprivation levels, food availability, neighbor distance, and group size can mask or amplify spatial position effects. We attempted to address experimentally the effect of spatial position on foraging and vigilance in a group, controlling for many confounding factors. We used enclosures that restricted physical but not visual interactions between brown-headed cowbirds and manipulated spatial position, flock size, and neighbor distance. Pecking rate (number of pecks per trial duration) was not related with position, but instantaneous pecking rate (number of pecks per foraging bout duration) was higher at the edge. The proportion of time spent head-up (scanning and food-handling) was also higher at the edge. For pecking rate and proportion of time spent scanning, changes in neighbor distance influenced the behavior of edge birds to a lesser extent than central birds. These results suggest that cowbirds at the edge perceived greater predation risk and that during the limited foraging time available, edge birds tried to compensate by foraging at a faster rate.