Re-occupation of existing nesting burrows in the European bee-eater Merops apiaster has only rarely - and if so mostly anecdotically - been documented in the literature record, although such behavior would substantially save time and energy. In this study, we quantify burrow re-occupation in a German colony over a period of eleven years and identify ecological variables determining reuse probability. Of 179 recorded broods, 54% took place in a reused burrow and the overall probability that one of 75 individually recognized burrows would be reused in a given subsequent year was estimated as 26.4%. This indicates that between-year burrow reuse is a common behavior in the study colony which contrasts with findings from studies in other colonies. Furthermore, burrow re-occupation probability declined highly significantly with increasing age of the breeding wall. Statistical separation of within- and between-burrow effects of the age of the breeding wall revealed that a decline in re-occupation probability with individual burrow age was responsible for this and not a selective disappearance of burrows with high re-occupation probability over time. Limited duty cycles of individual burrows may be caused by accumulating detritus or decreasing stability with increasing burrow age. Alternatively, burrow fidelity may presuppose pair fidelity which may also explain the observed restricted burrow reuse duty cycles. A consequent next step would be to extend our within-colony approach to other colonies and compare the ecological circumstances under which bee-eaters reuse breeding burrows.
Keywords: Breeding ecology; European bee-eater; Merops apiaster; breeding philopatry; burrow re-occupation; burrow reuse.