Increasing the costs of conspecific scanning in socially foraging starlings affects vigilance and foraging behaviour
Fernández-Juricic E., Smith R., Kacelnik A.
Social foragers receive and use information both about companions (social information) and about events external to the group, such as presence of potential predators. Scanning behaviour is often incorporated in theoretical models using simplifying assumptions in relation to the trade-off in information gathering between body postures (head-up versus head-down); however, some avian visual systems may allow individuals to scan in both body postures. We studied these issues experimentally, using starlings, Sturnus vulgaris, foraging in enclosures on natural fields. We varied the availability of information from conspecifics by placing visual barriers that blocked the view when the subjects were in head-down position and by manipulating the distance between group members. We found that as social information was reduced, starlings spent more time scanning (on and off the ground) and head-up scanning was mainly oriented towards conspecifics. The visual-obstruction effects imply that some information about conspecifics is normally gathered while starlings are foraging head-down. Neighbour distance and visual obstruction negatively affected food-searching rates and intake rates in two ways: (1) the effect of obstruction was mediated mostly through time competition between foraging and scanning on the ground, and (2) the effect of distance was due to a reduction in the rate of prey returns per searching effort while the birds were head-down. We conclude that the head-up posture is only one component of scanning, that the effects of head-down scanning should also be considered in species with ample visual fields, and that scanning in starlings is strongly connected to monitoring other flock members. © 2004 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour. Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.