Numerical and functional responses of Common Buzzards Buteo buteo to prey abundance on a Scottish grouse moor
Predators will often respond to reductions in preferred prey by switching to alternative prey resources. However, this may not apply to all alternative prey groups in patchy landscapes. We investigated the demographic and aggregative numerical and functional responses of Common Buzzards Buteo buteo in relation to variations in prey abundance on a moor managed for Red Grouse Lagopus lagopus scotica in south-west Scotland over three consecutive breeding and non-breeding seasons. We predicted that predation of Red Grouse by Buzzards would increase when abundance of their preferred Field Vole Microtus agrestis prey declined. As vole abundance fluctuated, Buzzards responded functionally by eating voles in relation to their abundance, but they did not respond demographically in terms of either breeding success or density. During a vole crash year, Buzzards selected a wider range of prey typical of enclosed farmland habitats found on the moorland edge but fewer Grouse from the heather moorland. During a vole peak year, prey remains suggested a linear relationship between Grouse density and the number of Grouse eaten (a Type 1 functional response), which was not evident in either intermediate or vole crash years. Buzzard foraging intensity varied between years as vole abundance fluctuated, and foraging intensity declined with increasing heather cover. Our findings did not support the prediction that predation of Red Grouse would increase when vole abundance was low. Instead, they suggest that Buzzards predated Grouse incidentally while hunting for voles, which may increase when vole abundances are high through promoting foraging in heather moorland habitats where Grouse are more numerous. Our results suggest that declines in their main prey may not result in increased predation of all alternative prey groups when predators inhabit patchy landscapes. We suggest that when investigating predator diet and impacts on prey, knowledge of all resources and habitats that are available to predators is important.