Age-dependent diet choice in an avian top predator

C Rutz*, MJ Whittingham, I Newton

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

91 Citations (Scopus)


Age-dependent breeding performance is arguably one of the best-documented phenomena in ornithology. The existence of age-related trends has major implications for life-history theory, but the proximate reasons for these patterns remain poorly understood. It has been proposed that poor breeding performance of young individuals might reflect lack of foraging skills. We investigated this possibility in a medium-sized, powerful raptor-the northern goshawk Accipitergentilis. Male goshawks are responsible for providing their females and their offspring with food. We hypothesized that young males may generally show poor breeding performance or even delay breeding, because they lack the experience to hunt efficiently-especially, their principal avian prey, the feral pigeon Columba livia. Our study exploited a rare 'natural experiment', the expansion phase of an urban population, where intraspecific interference was negligible and many young males bred successfully. This enabled us to examine the improvement of foraging skills in a larger sample of young individuals, and in more controlled conditions than usually possible. Using data from individually identified male breeders, we show that, consistent with our hypothesis, the proportion of pigeons in the diet increased significantly with male age, for at least the first three years of life. Other studies have shown a parallel increase in productivity, and a positive effect of a pigeon-rich diet on brood size and nestling condition, stressing the potential fitness relevance of this prey species for goshawks. Our results suggest a causal link between patterns of age-dependence in foraging ecology and reproductive performance. Furthermore, our study is, to our knowledge, the first demonstration that prey choice of breeders, which might reflect individual hunting skills, is age-dependent in a raptor.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)579-586
Number of pages8
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1586
Publication statusPublished - 7 Mar 2006


  • Accipiter gentilis
  • age-dependent foraging proficiency
  • delayed maturation and breeding
  • fitness
  • life-history theory
  • northern goshawk
  • SIZE


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