Pulsed resources at tundra breeding sites affect winter irruptions at temperate latitudes of a top predator, the snowy owl

Abstract

Irruptive migration is mostly observed in species specialized on pulsed resources and is thought to be a response to unpredictable changes in food supply. We assessed two alternative hypotheses to explain the periodic winter irruptions of snowy owls Bubo scandiacus every 3–5 years in temperate North America: (a) the lack-of-food hypothesis, which states that a crash in small mammal abundance on the Arctic breeding grounds forces owls to move out of the tundra massively to search for food in winter; (b) the breeding-success hypothesis, which states that high abundance of tundra small mammals during the summer allows for high production of young, thus increasing the pool of migrants moving south the following winter. We modeled winter irruptions of snowy owls in relation to summer food resources and geographic location. Winter abundance of owls was obtained from citizen-based surveys from 1994 to 2011 and summer abundance of small mammals was collected in summer at two distant sites in Canada: Bylot Island, NU (eastern High Arctic) and Daring Lake, NWT (central Low Arctic). Winter owl abundance was positively related to prey abundance during the previous summer at both sites and tended to decrease from western to eastern temperate North America. Irruptive migration of snowy owls was therefore best explained by the breeding success hypothesis and was apparently caused by large-scale summer variations in food. Our results, combined with previous findings, suggest that the main determinants of irruptive migration may be species specific even in a guild of apparently similar species.

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Acknowledgments

We would like to thank Suzanne Carrière (Northwest Territories Government), and Kathy Dale (CBC) for providing the data sets. We also are indebted to Gaétan Daigle, David Émond, and Dominique Fauteux for statistical assistance. This study was financially supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the network of centers of excellence ArcticNet, the Polar Continental Shelf Program of Natural Resources Canada, the Fonds de Recherche du Québec Nature et Technologies and EnviroNorth. Finally, this study would not have been possible without the efforts of the numerous volunteers who conducted the CBC counts. We thank them all.

Author contribution statement

J. B. originally formulated the idea; A. R. and J. F. T. conceived and designed the experiments. G. G., K. C. and J. F. T. conducted fieldwork; A. R. developed the mathematical models and performed statistical analyses; A. R., J. B. and G. G. wrote the manuscript and all other authors revised it and provided editorial advice.

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Correspondence to A. Robillard.

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Communicated by Toni Laaksonen.

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Robillard, A., Therrien, J.F., Gauthier, G. et al. Pulsed resources at tundra breeding sites affect winter irruptions at temperate latitudes of a top predator, the snowy owl. Oecologia 181, 423–433 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-016-3588-3

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Keywords

  • Bubo scandiacus
  • Irruptive migration
  • Wintering range
  • Small mammal
  • Zero-inflated negative binomial model