Flight initiation distance and refuge in urban birds

Federico Morelli, Peter Mikula, Daniel T. Blumstein, Mario Diaz, Gábor Markó, Jukka Jokimaki, Marja-Liisa Kaisanlahti-Jokimaki, Kristina Floigl, Farah Abou Zeid, Anastasiia Siretckaia, Yanina Benedetti

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Risk-taking in birds is often measured as the flight initiation distance (FID), the distance at which individuals take flight when approached by a potential predator (typically a human). The ecological factors that affect avian FID have received great attention over the past decades and meta-analyses and comparative analyses have shown that FID is correlated with body mass, flock size, starting distance of the approaching human, density of potential predators, as well as varying along rural to urban gradients. However, surprisingly, only few studies (mainly on reptiles and mammals) have explored effects of different types of refugia and their availability on animal escape decisions.
We used Bayesian regression models (controlling for the phylogenetic relatedness of bird species) to explore changes in escape behaviour recorded in European cities in relationship to the birds' distance to the nearest refuge and distance fled to the refuge. In our analyses, we also included information on the type of refuge, built-up and vegetation cover, starting distance, flock size, urbanization level, and type of urban habitat. We found that birds preferred tree refuges over artificial and bush refuges. Birds escaped earlier if the distance to the nearest refuge of any type was longer and if birds fled longer distances to the refuge. FID was shorter when birds used bushes as refugia or landed on the ground after flushing compared to using artificial refugia. Similarly, the distance fled to a refuge was shortest when using bushes, and increased when escaping to artificial substrates and trees. Birds were more timid in suburban than core areas of cities, cemeteries than parks, and in areas with higher bush cover but lower cover of built-up areas and trees. Our findings provide novel information regarding the importance of refuge proximity and type as factors affecting the escape behaviour of urban birds.
Original languageEnglish
Article number156939
Journal Science of the Total Environment
Early online date2022
Publication statusPublished - 10 Oct 2022
MoEC publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed


  • birds
  • escape behaviour
  • human disturbance
  • refuge distance
  • trees
  • Urban habitats

Field of science

  • Ecology, evolutionary biology


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