Fighting over food unites the birds of North America in a continental dominance hierarchy
Members of different species often engage in aggressive contests over resources. When considered at the level of the species assemblage, this series of aggressive contests between species may result in an interspecific dominance hierarchy. Such hierarchies are of interest because they could be used to address a variety of research questions, e.g., do similarly ranked species tend to avoid each other in time or space, and what will happen when such species come into contact as climates change? Here, we propose a method for creating a continental-scale hierarchy, and we make initial analyses based on this hierarchy. Leveraging the existing network of citizen scientists from Project FeederWatch, we collected the data with which to create a continent-spanning interspecific dominance hierarchy that included species that do not currently have overlapping geographic distributions. We quantified the extent of intransitivities (rock-paper-scissors relationships) in the hierarchy, as intransitivities can promote local species’ coexistence. Overall, the hierarchy was nearly linear, and largely predicted by body mass, although there were clade-specific deviations from the average mass–dominance relationship. Warblers and orioles, for instance, were more dominant than expected based on their body mass, while buntings, grosbeaks, and doves were less dominant than expected. Intransitive relationships were rare. Few interactions were reported between close relatives and ecological competitors like Mountain and Black-capped Chickadees, as such species often have only marginally overlapping geographic distributions, restricting opportunity for observation. Yet, these species’ ranks—emergent properties of the network—were often in agreement with targeted studies of dominance relationships between them.
This article was written by Eliot T. Miller, David N. Bonter, Charles Eldermire, Benjamin G. Freeman, Emma I. Greig, Luke J. Harmon, Curtis Lisle, and Wesley M. Hochachka. It appeared in Behavioral Ecology, the journal of the International Society for Behavioral Ecology, in 2017.