A predator's perspective of nest predation: predation by red squirrels is learned, not incidental


S. A. Pelech, Dept. of Zoology, Univ. of British Columbia, BC, Canada. E-mail: sapelech@ualberta.ca


Nest predation has been used to explain aspects of avian ecology ranging from nest site selection to population declines. Many arguments rely on specific assumptions regarding how predators find nests, yet these predatory mechanisms remain largely untested. Here we combine artificial nest experiments with behavioural observations of individual red squirrels Tamiasciurus hudsonicus to differentiate between two common hypotheses: predation is incidental versus learned. Specifically, we tested: 1) whether nest survival could be explained solely by a squirrel's activity patterns or habitat use, as predicted if predation was incidental; or 2) if predation increased as a squirrel gained experience preying on a nest, as predicted if predation was learned. We also monitored squirrel activity after predation to test for evidence of two search mechanisms: area-restricted searching and use of microhabitat search images. Contrary to incidental predation and in support of learning, squirrels did not find nests faster in areas with high use (e.g. forest edges). Instead, survival of artificial nests was strongly related to a squirrel's prior experience preying on artificial nests. Experience reduced nest survival times by over half and increased predation rates by 150–200%. Squirrels returned to and doubled their activity at the site of a previously preyed on nest. However, neither area-restricted searching nor microhabitat search images can explain how squirrels located artificial nests more readily with experience. Instead, squirrels likely used cues associated with the nests or eggs themselves. Learning implies that squirrels could be increasingly effective predators as the density or profitability of nests increases. Our results add support to the view that nest predation is complex and broadly influenced (e.g. by predator experience, motivation), and is unlikely to be predicted consistently by simple relationships with predator activity, abundance or habitat.