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Variable but predictable prey availability affects predator breeding success: natural versus experimental evidence


  • Editor: Andrew C. Kitchener

Alexandre Millon, APERU, Department of Zoology, University of Aberdeen, Tillydrone Avenue, Aberdeen AB24 2TZ, Scotland.


Food supply is a major source of variation in breeding success for predators, and to what extent individuals are able to cope with temporal variability in food availability remains an outstanding question in life-history studies. We confronted the natural variation in clutch size and breeding success with results from a food supplementation experiment during egg formation, conducted over several contrasted years of natural food supply in an avian specialist predator, the Montagu's harrier Circus pygargus. This raptor mainly preys on common vole Microtus arvalis a cyclic microtine under temperate latitudes. Vole abundance together with timing of breeding accounted for most of the variance in clutch size and number of fledglings. Results from empirical and experimental data were overall in agreement. Fed pairs consistently increased clutch size compared with controls in all experimental years, whereas no effect of food supplementation on egg volume was detected. Supplemented pairs, however, did not fledge significantly more chicks than controls. The costs entailed by the increase in clutch size appear nevertheless to be limited compared with previous studies. Food supply seemed therefore to display sufficient predictability throughout a breeding season to afford individuals the opportunity to adjust their breeding effort to an optimal number of offspring, in agreement with Lack's anticipation hypothesis.