Royal Society Publishing

Good foragers can also be good at detecting predators

W. Cresswell , J. L. Quinn , M. J. Whittingham , S. Butler


The degree to which foraging and vigilance are mutually exclusive is crucial to understanding the management of the predation and starvation risk trade–off in animals. We tested whether wild–caught captive chaffinches that feed at a higher rate do so at the expense of their speed in responding to a model sparrowhawk flying nearby, and whether consistently good foragers will therefore tend to respond more slowly on average. First, we confirmed that the time taken to respond to the approaching predator depended on the rate of scanning: as head–up rate increased so chaffinches responded more quickly. However, against predictions, as peck rate increased so head–up rate increased and mean length of head–up and head–down periods decreased. Head–up rate was probably dependent on peck rate because almost every time a seed was found, a bird raised its head to handle it. Therefore chaffinches with higher peck rates responded more quickly. Individual chaffinches showed consistent durations of both their head–down and head–up periods and, therefore, individuals that were good foragers were also good detectors of predators. In relation to the broad range of species that have a similar foraging mode to chaffinches, our results have two major implications for predation/starvation risk trade–offs: (i) feeding rate can determine vigilance scanning patterns; and (ii) the best foragers can also be the best at detecting predators. We discuss how our results can be explained in mechanistic terms relating to fundamental differences in how the probabilities of detecting food rather than a predator are affected by time. In addition, our results offer a plausible explanation for the widely observed effect that vigilance continues to decline with group size even when there is no further benefit to reducing vigilance.