Balancing food and predator pressure induces chronic stress in songbirds

Michael Clinchy, Liana Zanette, Rudy Boonstra, John C. Wingfield, James N. M. Smith

Abstract

The never–ending tension between finding food and avoiding predators may be the most universal natural stressor wild animals experience. The ‘chronic stress’ hypothesis predicts: (i) an animal's stress profile will be a simultaneous function of food and predator pressures given the aforesaid tension; and (ii) these inseparable effects on physiology will produce inseparable effects on demography because of the resulting adverse health effects. This hypothesis was originally proposed to explain synergistic (inseparable) food and predator effects on demography in snowshoe hares (Lepus americanus). We conducted a 2 × 2, manipulative food addition plus natural predator reduction experiment on song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) that was, to our knowledge, the first to demonstrate comparable synergistic effects in a bird: added food and lower predator pressure in combination produced an increase in annual reproductive success almost double that expected from an additive model. Here we report the predicted simultaneous food and predator effects on measures of chronic stress in the context of the same experiment: birds at unfed, high predator pressure (HPP) sites had the highest stress levels; those at either unfed or HPP sites showed intermediate levels; and fed birds at low predator pressure sites had the lowest stress levels.