Flocking of foraging Yellow-billed Choughs Pyrrhocorax graculus reflects the availability of grasshoppers and the extent of human influence in high elevation ecosystems

Doi: https://doi.org/10.13157/arla.68.1.2021.ra4

Authors: Cristina VALLINO, Enrico CAPRIO, Fabrizio GENCO, Dan CHAMBERLAIN, Claudia PALESTRINI, Angela ROGGERO, Massimo BOCCA and Antonio ROLANDO

E-mail: enrico.caprio@unito.it

Published: Volume 68.1, January 2021. Pages 53-70.

Language: English

Keywords: Alpine Chough, foraging, flock size, grasshoppers and human development

Summary:

Mountain ecosystems are subject to many pressures, including changes in land use, rising temperatures and increasing recreational activities. These factors may disrupt food webs, threatening the survival of organisms and, ultimately, ecosystem functioning. However, few studies focus on the trends of different groups joined by trophic links in alpine ecosystems. The Yellow-billed (Alpine) Chough, Pyrrhocorax graculus, a gregarious bird that moves in flocks, is an ideal target species within this framework since it has a grasshopper-based diet during the summer and may attend sites that are heavily developed for recreational activities. We tested therefore whether flock size co-varied with grasshopper abundance along an elevational gradient in two alpine areas subject to different levels of human disturbance. Chough flock size and grasshopper abundance were measured along elevational transects. The median flock size was analysed in relation to grasshopper abundance and biomass, we also conducted negative binomial gLMs to account for effects of period (i.e. from june to mid-August), site and elevation. In both study areas, chough flocks were larger at the elevation where grasshoppers were more abundant. This may indicate the capacity of the species to follow large-scale fluctuations in their key insect prey. On the other hand, the relationship between flock size and grasshopper biomass was positive at a natural site and negative at a tourist site. This suggests that where there is a high level of human influence, other factors, such as the availability of human provided food, may disturb the natural relationship between choughs and their key prey. Overall, our results indicate that flocking by foraging Yellow-billed Choughs reflects both grasshopper abundance and the degree of anthropogenic influence.

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