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Behavioural responses to human disturbance: A matter of choice?

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Publication details

DatePublished - 1 Nov 2004
Issue number5
Number of pages5
Pages (from-to)1065-1069
Original languageEnglish


The strength of an animal's behavioural response to human presence has often been used as an index of an animal's susceptibility to disturbance. However, if behavioural responsiveness is positively related to the animal's condition, this may be an inappropriate index, as individuals showing little or no response may in fact be those with most to lose from changing their behaviour. We tested the link between individual state and responsiveness by manipulating condition via the provision of supplementary food for turnstones, Arenaria interpres, on rocky shores. Birds at one site were fed 450 g of mealworms at low tide every day for 3 days while birds at another site acted as a control. On the fourth day, using a standardized disturbance protocol, we recorded flush distances, flight lengths and the amount of time between predator scans for birds in both flocks. After a break of 3 days, the treatments were then swapped between sites and the procedure repeated for a total of six trials. Birds whose condition had been enhanced showed greater responsiveness to standardized human disturbance, flying away at greater distances from the observer, scanning more frequently for predators and flying further when flushed. These findings suggest that our current management of the impact of human disturbance may be based on inaccurate assessments of vulnerability, and we discuss the implications of this for refuge provision.

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