, Volume 166, Issue 3, pp 577-584
Date: 23 Dec 2010

Vulnerability of black grouse hens to goshawk predation: result of food supply or predation facilitation?

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Abstract

The plant cycle hypothesis says that poor-quality food affects both herbivorous voles (Microtinae spp.) and grouse (Tetraonidae spp.) in vole decline years, leading to increased foraging effort in female grouse and thus a higher risk of predation by the goshawk Accipiter gentilis. Poor-quality food (mainly the bilberry Vaccinium myrtillus) for these herbivores is induced by seed masting failure in the previous year, when the bilberry is able to allocate resources for chemical defence (the mast depression hypothesis; MDH). The predation facilitation hypothesis (PFH) in turn states that increased searching activity of vole-eating predators during or after the decline year of voles disturbs incubating and brooding grouse females. The behaviours used by grouse to avoid these terrestrial predators make them more vulnerable to predation by goshawks. We tested the main predictions of the MDH and PFH by collecting long-term (21-year) data from black grouse Tetrao tetrix hens and cocks killed by breeding goshawks supplemented with indices of bilberry crop, vole abundance and small carnivores in the vicinity of Oulu, northern Finland. We did not find obvious support for the prediction of the MDH that there is a negative correlation of bilberry crop in year t with vole abundance and with predation index of black grouse hens in year t + 1. We did find obvious support for the prediction of the PFH that there is a positive correlation between predator abundance and predation index of grouse hens, because the stoat Mustela erminea abundance index was positively related to the predation index of black grouse hens. We suggest that changes in vulnerability of grouse hens may mainly be caused by the guild of vole-eating predators, who shift to alternative prey in the decline phase of the vole cycle, and thus chase grouse hens and chicks to the talons of goshawks and other avian predators.

Communicated by Peter Banks.