Avian anti-predator behavior along elevational and latitudinal gradients
Flight-initiation distance (FID), the distance between an individual and experimenter when it begins to flee, can be used to quantify risk-assessment. Amongst other factors, prior studies have shown that latitude explains significant variation in avian FID: at lower latitudes, individuals and species have longer FIDs than those living at higher latitudes. No prior studies have focused on the effect of elevation on FID. Given the similar patterns of seasonality, climate, and potentially predator density, that covary between latitude and elevation, birds at higher elevations might tolerate closer approaches. We asked whether elevation or latitude would explain more variation in the FID of a common passerine bird species, the Oregon form of dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis). Juncos live in a variety of habitats along both latitudinal and elevational gradients. We found that statistical models containing elevation as a variable explained more of the variation in FID than did models containing latitude. We also found, unexpectedly, that birds at higher elevation fled at greater distances. While more predators were sighted per hour at higher elevations than at lower elevations, the frequency of predator sightings did not explain a significant amount of variation in FID. This result questions whether predator density is the main driver of risk perception along elevational gradients. Nonetheless, because elevation explains more variation in FID than latitude, these findings have direct implications on how human impacts on birds are managed. Specifically, those designing set-back zones to reduce human impact on birds may have to modify them based on both latitude and elevation.