Habitat selection is a crucial process in the life cycle of animals because it can affect most components of fitness. It has been proposed that some animals cue on the reproductive success of conspecifics to select breeding habitats. We tested this hypothesis with demographic and behavioral data from a 17-yr study of the Black-legged Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla), a cliff-nesting seabird. As the hypothesis assumes, the Black-legged Kittiwake nesting environment was patchy, and the relative quality of the different patches (i.e., breeding cliffs) varied in time. The average reproductive success of the breeders of a given cliff was predictable from one year to the next, but this predictability faded after several years. The dynamic nature of cliff quality in the long term is partly explained by the autocorrelation of the prevalence of an ectoparasite that influences reproductive success. As predicted by the performance-based conspecific attraction hypothesis, the reproductive success of current breeders on a given cliff was predictive of the reproductive success of new recruits on the cliff in the following year. Breeders tended to recruit to the previous year's most productive cliffs and to emigrate from the least productive ones. Consequently, the dynamics of breeder numbers on the cliffs were explained by local reproductive success on a year-to-year basis. Because, on average, young Black-legged Kittiwakes first breed when 4 yr old, such a relationship probably results from individual choices based on the assessment of previous-year local quality. When breeders changed breeding cliffs between years, they selected cliffs of per capita higher reproductive success. Furthermore, after accounting for the potential effects of age and sex as well as between-year variations, the effect of individual breeding performance on breeding dispersal was strongly influenced by the average reproductive success of other breeders on the same cliff. Individual breeding performance did not appear to influence the probability of dispersing for birds breeding on cliffs with high local reproductive success, whereas individual breeding performance did have a strong effect on dispersal for birds that bred on cliffs with lower local reproductive success. This suggests that the reproductive success of locally breeding conspecifics may be sufficient to override an individual's own breeding experience when deciding whether to emigrate. These results, which are supported by behavioral observations of the role of prospecting in recruitment, suggest that both first breeders and adults rely on the reproductive success of conspecifics as 'public information' to assess their own chances of breeding successfully in a given patch and to make settling decisions. A corollary prediction is that individuals should attempt to breed near successful conspecifics (a form of social attraction) in order to benefit from the same favorable local environmental conditions. Such a performance-based conspecific attraction mechanism can thus lead to an aggregative distribution of nests and may have played a role in the evolution of coloniality.
Additional publication details
Conspecific reproductive success and breeding habitat selection: Implications for the study of coloniality