Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 64, Issue 8, pp 1351–1361 | Cite as

Experimental evidence of specialised phenotypic roles in a mobbing raptor

  • Audrey Sternalski
  • Vincent Bretagnolle
Original Paper


Group living is associated with costs but also with potential benefits, such as a decrease in predation risk through, for example, higher defence efficiency. Mobbing is among the most specialised forms of anti-predator strategies involving group defence and has mainly been investigated in passerine birds and some mammals. Variation in the mobbing response has been found in several species according to phenotypic variation such as sex or age. This suggests that there are differential benefits between mobbers, which may have promoted individual specialisation in mobbing behaviour. We studied mobbing behaviour in a communal roosting raptor, the Marsh harrier (Circus aeruginosus), which shows active group defence. Our study population exhibits extreme colour polymorphism, with two colour morphs in males, as well as sexual dichromatism and colour variation with age. We used different decoys, placed at different distances from the roost, to manipulate experimentally the perceived predation risk and to elicit mobbing behaviour. Using the experimental design that maximised mobbing response in harriers, we then focused on the sequence and the specific behaviours involved in recruitment of mobbers, and whether individual investment in terms of defence was associated with phenotypic characteristics of individuals (i.e. sex, age and colour morph). We found that the main behaviour involved in successfully attracting mobbers was alarm calling. We also detected differential individual investment in relation to sex and age, but more importantly, we provide the first evidence for specialised male phenotypic roles during mobbing events, signalled by colour polymorphism: grey males tended not to be involved in mobbing and almost never behaved as recruiters or mobbers, while brown males behaved mainly as recruiter birds. These findings suggest that colour morph may signal the individual’s anti-predatory abilities through different behavioural strategies between males.


Mobbing Anti-predator strategy Polymorphism Circus aeruginosus Raptor Phenotypic specialisation 



Particular thanks are due to F. Picaud and W. Huin for their participation in field work and to C. Bavoux and several trainees and volunteers of Le Marais aux Oiseaux for their dedicated help during communal roost counts. We are grateful to David Carslake for commenting and improving the English of a first draft. We thank Beatriz Arroyo, Alexandre Roulin and in particular Gary Bortolotti for their very useful comments on a previous draft. We also wish to thank Mickael Griesser for his very helpful comments and insights on our manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.CEBC–CNRSBeauvoir-sur-NiortFrance

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