Individuals of a group-living shorebird show smaller home range overlap when food availability is low

Mov Ecol. 2023 Oct 27;11(1):70. doi: 10.1186/s40462-023-00427-9.


Background: Group living animals, such as shorebirds foraging on intertidal mudflats, may use social information about where to find hidden food items. However, flocking also increases intraspecific competition for resources, which may be exacerbated by food scarcity. Therefore, although aggregation may bring benefits, it may also increase the intensity of intraspecific competition.

Methods: We examined this trade-off in adult great knots Calidris tenuirostris, a molluscivorous long-distance migrating shorebird species, using interannual variation based on 2 years with different levels of food availability during their northward migratory staging in the northern Yellow Sea, China. We estimated individual home ranges and the extent of spatial overlap of home ranges of individually tagged birds in 2012 and 2015, whilst discounting for possible differences in body size, body mass, sex and migration schedule between years.

Results: We found that home range size was not associated with body mass, arrival date, body size, or sex of the individual. Despite a significant difference in food availability between the two study years, there was no significant change in the 50% and 95% home range size of great knots in the contrasting situations. However, there was a significantly smaller spatial overlap between individuals in the year when food was less available, suggesting that great knots operated more independently when food was scarce than when it was abundant.

Conclusions: These results suggest that minimizing intraspecific competition became more important when food was scarce. Where it is impossible to monitor all habitats en route, monitoring the local movements of shorebirds may offer a way to detect changes in habitat quality in real time.

Keywords: Aggregation; Food shortage; Migratory shorebirds; Overlap; Waders.