Breeding Brown Pelicans Improve Foraging Performance as Energetic Needs Rise
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Optimal foraging theory states that animals should maximize resource acquisition rates with respect to energy expenditure, which may involve alteration of strategies in response to changes in resource availability and energetic need. However, field-based studies of changes in foraging behavior at fine spatial and temporal scales are rare, particularly among species that feed on highly mobile prey across broad landscapes. To derive information on changes in foraging behavior of breeding brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) over time, we used GPS telemetry and distribution models of their dominant prey species to relate bird movements to changes in foraging habitat quality in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Over the course of each breeding season, pelican cohorts began by foraging in suboptimal habitats relative to the availability of high-quality patches, but exhibited a marked increase in foraging habitat quality over time that outpaced overall habitat improvement trends across the study site. These findings, which are consistent with adjustment of foraging patch use in response to increased energetic need, highlight the degree to which animal populations can optimize their foraging behaviors in the context of uncertain and dynamic resource availability, and provide an improved understanding of how landscape-level features can impact behavior.