Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy
Strategies animals use to find and consume food in the face of conflicting forces such as competition and predation are central questions in the fields of ecological theory and management. Whereas theoretical models abound, proper empirical tests of these theories are less abundant. In studying the relationship between food abundance, predation risk, and competition there exists an array of confounding factors, which need to be accounted for by manipulating some aspect of the system. I used a guild of spring migratory ducks as a model system and manipulated food abundance in areas differing in presumed risk to assess the relative effects of food abundance, predation risk, competition, and life history characteristics on foraging strategies used by ducks. Using a randomized block design, I established a pair of 0.4 ha plots (block) in emergent, open water, and forested wetlands in the Wabash River Floodplain in eastern Illinois. I randomly selected one plot within each block to supplement with 2000 kg/ha of corn (Zea mays), creating an area of very high duck food abundance next to a control area with no added food. I conducted instantaneous focal animal samples and used video recorders to estimate the proportion of time mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), blue-winged teal (Anas discors), wood duck (Aix sponsa), ring-necked duck (Aythya collaris), and lesser scaup (Aythya affinis) devoted to feeding, identify the specific behaviors used, and estimate feeding stint lengths and frequencies. I used these metrics as an index of risk that ducks were willing to engage in for a known food reward. I predicted that species with a faster life history strategy, factors that increase perceived predation risk (cover, water depth, group size), and increase energetic demand (due to nesting or temperature), would elicit more risk-taking behaviors in ducks. This would be realized by an increase in the proportion of time spent feeding, longer feeding durations, and deeper feeding behaviors in treatment plots compared with control plots. Consistent with my life history prediction, species with a faster life history strategy were willing to engage in more risky behavior (feeding more) for a greater food reward (food treatment). Mallards, lesser scaup, and wood ducks exhibited risk-taking behavior consistent with perceived predation risk. Mallards devoted more time to feeding and used longer feeding stints when in areas with less cover. Alternatively, lesser scaup devoted more time to feeding when in areas of more cover. Wood ducks devoted more time to feeding in treatment plots, when in shallow areas, and larger flocks. When blue-winged teal fed on the surface (eyes above water), they devoted more overall time to feeding indicating that surface feeding is less risky than deeper feeding. Wood ducks and lesser scaup exhibited behavior consistent with an increase in energetic demand as observed by an increase in the proportion of time devoted to feeding later in the spring. I also examined how food abundance influenced aspects of ducks' foraging niches. I found that dabbling ducks used a greater variety of behaviors (behavior niche breadth) when in treatment plots compared to control plots and also shifted to slightly deeper feeding behaviors in treatment plots. This greater breadth when food was more abundant was due to individuals of the same species diverging from one another, rather than each individual using a broader array of behaviors. Overall, I found substantial variability among and within species in how they manage risk while foraging, although this was partially explained by life history theory, and what types of conditions they perceive as risky. I document the importance of taking the state of the forager (life history, perceived risk, energetic demand) into account when examining patterns of risk-taking.
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