Field experiments on three free-ranging Willow Tit winter flocks, each consisting of one adult pair and two male and two female juveniles (first-year birds), were performed to examine whether preferences for feeding site and antipredator behaviour are related to social rank. The dominance structure was the same in all flocks; adult male > juvenile male 1 > juvenile male 2 > adult female > juvenile female 1 > juvenile female 2.
The proportion of time spent scanning for predators was positively correlated with distance from cover, and adults scanned relatively more than juveniles at the same controlled distance from cover, especially in the afternoon. Given a choice between feeders placed 1 m, 3 m, 5 m, 10 m and 20 m from the forest edge, the tits preferred feeders close to cover. Low-ranking individuals used feeders farther from cover indicating that higher ranked tits prevented them from using the feeders close to cover by means of social dominance. When only the 10m and 20 m feeders were baited, only low-ranked juveniles visited the feeders, subordinate females slightly more than males. The subordinate juveniles increased their use of exposed feeders at low ambient temperature, suggesting that they are prepared to take greater risks during cold periods.
The sequence of return to a feeder, after a life-like stuffed predator model mounted 1 m from a feeder opening was removed, was positively correlated with dominance status, revealing that subordinates take the greatest predation risks.