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Keywords:

  • anthropogenic food;
  • population growth

Anthropogenic food from refuse tips can affect population dynamics in birds, especially gulls, but the evidence is mostly circumstantial. We combine analyses of long-term population data and natural experiments to show a positive effect of refuse tips on the growth of the Spanish breeding population of Rooks Corvus frugilegus. In this isolated population of around 2000 breeding pairs, monitored since 1976, birds in colonies less than 10 km from tips fed largely on refuse, particularly during periods of lowest natural food availability. Three lines of evidence support the hypothesis that the supply of refuse influenced breeding numbers, suggesting that this population is limited by food: 1) between 1976 and 2003, the two population nuclei that had access to tips increased 2.1 and 3.7 times more than that without a tip nearby; 2) annual colony growth between 1996 and 2003 was strongly correlated with the availability of tips when other potentially important variables were taken into account; 3) the number of breeding pairs in refuse-foraging colonies declined rapidly after the closure of the local tip and recovered only when a supply of refuse was restored. The effect of tips on colony growth was stronger when the availability of natural foraging habitat around the colonies was low, suggesting that anthropogenic food acts as a buffer against shortage of natural food. Artificial food supplementation may be an effective tool to increase the breeding population of target species, especially those facing a reduction of their foraging habitats. The potential effects on bird species of Directive 1999/31/CE, which is enforcing a massive closure of tips in Europe, are discussed.