Predation plays an important role in ecological communities by affecting prey behavior such as foraging and by physical removal of individual prey. In regard to foraging, animals such as desert rodents often balance conflicting demands for food and safety. This has been studied in the field by indirectly manipulating predatory risk through the alteration of cues associated with increased risk such as cover or illumination. It has also been studied by directly manipulating the presence of predators in aviaries. Here, we report on experiments in which we directly manipulated actual predatory risk to desert rodents in the field. We conducted a series of experiments in the field using a trained barn owl (Tyto alba) to investigate how two species of coexisting gerbils (Gerbillus allenbyi and G. pyramidum) respond to various cues of predatory risk in their natural environment. The gerbils responded to risk of predation, in the form of owl flights and owl hunger calls, by reducing their activity in the risky plot relative to the control plot. The strongest response was to owl flights and the weakest to recorded hunger calls of owls. Furthermore, when risk of predation was relatively high, as in the case with barn owl flights, both gerbil species mostly limited their activity to the safer bush microhabitat. The response of the gerbils to risk of predation disappeared very quickly following removal of the treatment, and the gerbils returned to normal levels of activity within the same night. The gerbils did not respond to experimental cues (alarm clock), the presence of the investigators, the presence of a quiet owl, and recorded "white noise". Using trained barn owls, we were able to effectively manipulate actual risk of predation to gerbils in natural habitats and to quantify how gerbils alter their behavior in order to balance conflicting demands of food and safety. The method allows assessment of aspects of behavior, population interactions, and community characteristics involving predation in natural habitats.
Keywords: Field experiments; Foraging; Gerbils; Predation risk; Trained barn owls.