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Diet specificity is not associated with increased reproductive performance of Golden Eagles Aquila chrysaetos in Western Scotland

Whitfield, D. P., Reid, Robin, Haworth, Paul F., Madders, Mike, Marquiss, Mick, Tingay, Ruth and Fielding, Alan H. (2009) Diet specificity is not associated with increased reproductive performance of Golden Eagles Aquila chrysaetos in Western Scotland. Ibis, 151 (2). pp. 255-264. ISSN 1474-919X

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Amongst raptor species, individuals with specialized diets are commonly observed to have higher reproductive output than those with general diets. A suggested cause is that foraging efficiency benefits accrue to diet specialists. This diet specificity hypothesis thus predicts that diet breadth and reproductive success should be inversely related within species. We highlight, however, that a prey availability hypothesis also makes the same prediction in some circumstances. Hence, when high diet specificity results from high encounter rates with an abundant, preferred prey, then prey availability may affect reproductive success, with diet specialization as an incidental correlate. Using three insular study areas in western Scotland, we examine diet specificity and reproductive success in Golden Eagles Aquila chrysaetos. Diet breadth and breeding productivity were not negatively related in any of our study areas, even though birds with specific diets did tend to have a higher incidence of preferred prey (grouse and lagomorphs) in the diet. Indeed, in two study areas there was evidence that diet generalists had higher breeding productivity. Our results therefore failed to support the diet specificity hypothesis but were consistent with the prey availability hypothesis. We highlight that although many other studies are superficially consistent with the diet specificity hypothesis, our study is not alone in failing to provide support and that the hypothesis does not provide a generic explanation for all relevant results. Diet specificity in predators can be at least partially a response to prey diversity, availability and distribution, and benefits associated with different prey types, so that being a generalist is not necessarily intrinsically disadvantageous. We suggest that the available evidence is more consistent with variation in prey abundance and availability as a more influential factor explaining spatial and temporal variation in breeding productivity of 'generalist' species such as the Golden Eagle. Under this argument, prey abundance and availability are the main drivers of variation in reproductive output. Diet specificity is a consequence of variation in prey availability, rather than a substantial cause of variation in reproductive success.

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