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Northern Hawk-Owls in the Nearctic Boreal Forest: Prey Selection and Population Consequences of Multiple Prey Cycles

Christoph Rohner, James N. M. Smith, Johan Stroman, Miranda Joyce, Frank I. Doyle and Rudy Boonstra
The Condor
Vol. 97, No. 1 (Feb., 1995), pp. 208-220
DOI: 10.2307/1368997
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1368997
Page Count: 13
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Northern Hawk-Owls in the Nearctic Boreal Forest: Prey Selection and Population Consequences of Multiple Prey Cycles
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Abstract

We studied hawk-owls in the southwestern Yukon, Canada, from 1987-1993. Most information on hawk-owls originates from studies in Europe, and very little is known about the subspecies Surnia ulula caparoch in North America. The boreal forest communities in the two continents differ remarkably in the composition of cyclic herbivore populations. Fennoscandia is dominated by 3-4 year microtine cycles, whereas northern Canada and Alaska experience a 10-year cycle in snowshoe hare numbers, with voles fluctuating at lower levels. We studied the diets of nine nesting pairs by pellet analysis, and we observed prey deliveries at five nests. The proportion of voles in the diets was lower than reported from Fennoscandia, and snowshoe hares made up 40-50% during the peak of the hare cycle. Estimates of prey densities by live-trapping revealed that hawk-owls strongly prefer voles over snowshoe hares and squirrels. Among voles, Microtus were preferred and Clethrionomys were avoided. Hawk-owls showed, however, a functional response not only to voles but also to juvenile hares, and they may be critically dependent on larger prey during certain nesting stages when vole abundance is moderate or low. Breeding densities and winter observations changed concurrently over years of different prey abundance. Prey selection translated into population consequences: hawk-owls did not respond numerically to Clethrionomys outbreaks, but to the combined densities of Microtus and snowshoe hares. We conclude that the Northern Hawk-Owl is less of a vole specialist and more affected by the prey composition in specific systems than commonly assumed, and we discuss this pattern from an evolutionary perspective.

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