Trade-offs and seasonal variation in territorial defence and predator evasion in the European Robin Erithacus rubecula


*Corresponding authors.


The low incidence of intraspecific combat in territorial systems has traditionally been accounted for by theories that emphasize the bio-energetic advantages or the diminished risk of injury of threat display posture when compared with combat. Recently, however, it has been suggested that territory-holding passerines engaging in highly aggressive defensive behaviour are likely to pay a cost in terms of reduced vigilance for avian predators. To examine this further, two defensive options (combat and threat display) were evoked and observed in territorial European Robins Erithacus rubecula, in both winter and summer. It was found that Robins that engaged in combat during simulated territorial intrusion were significantly slower to react to a stuffed Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus, than those eliciting threat display. Therefore, the decreased vigilance in escalated fighting may result in higher vulnerability to predation, and this might help, in part, to explain why threat display is favoured over direct combat. Moreover, the mean time to evade the predator was significantly longer in summer than in winter in threat-displaying Robins. In addition to this finding, a clear difference in the type of behaviour adopted between the seasons was observed, with lower incidence of combatative response during the winter months. This difference in response to the appearance of a predator is discussed in relation to reduced levels of safe cover, a reduction in the availability of alternative prey during the winter months and to seasonal fluctuations in plasma androgen levels.