Nutritional composition of the preferred prey of insectivorous birds: popularity reflects quality

Emma Razeng, David M. Watson

Published online: 
30 September 2014

Food availability is emerging as a key determinant of avian occurrence and habitat use in a variety of systems, but insectivores have received less attention than other groups and the potential influence of nutritional quality has rarely been considered. Rather than a uniform food source, arthropods vary greatly in terms of nutritional composition, but does this variation translate into differential consumption? Building on previous work that demonstrated clear preference for some arthropod groups by 13 species of ground-foraging insectivores, we compare the nutritional composition of these arthropod groups with other groups commonly encountered but seldom consumed in the same habitat types. Using samples of arthropods collected from a eucalypt woodland in southern Australia, we found the high frequency prey groups (Coleoptera, Lepidoptera, Orthoptera and Araneae) consistently contained higher fractions of crude protein and total fat than the low frequency groups (Diptera, Hymenoptera and Odonata). Even more clear-cut differences were noted in terms of micronutrients; high frequency prey containing significantly greater concentrations of seven elements than low frequency prey and significantly greater amounts per individual arthropod for all eleven elements measured. These results indicate that the nutritional quality plays an important role in prey selection in insectivores and suggests that micronutrients may be more important determinants of prey choice than previously recognized. Integrating these findings with previous work suggesting food limitation may constrain distribution patterns of birds in fragmented landscapes, we contend that variation in nutritional quality helps explain observed patterns in insectivore diets and occurrence. In addition to explaining why smaller and more disturbed habitats are unable to support resident insectivore populations, this bottom-up mechanism may underlie the disproportionate sensitivity of insectivores to land-use intensification.

Doi
10.1111/jav.00475