In seasonal environments variation in food abundance in the non-breeding season is thought to affect songbird population dynamics. In a unique tit-sea buckthorn berry system we can estimate the berry abundance and both the tit consumption and population dynamics. Six hundred nest boxes were available to great and blue tits Cyanistes caeruleus for breeding in spring and roosting in winter. We followed the dynamics including the recapture histories of individually marked great tits from 2008 to 2014. In each year we estimated 1) the winter sea buckthorn berry availability, 2) an index of berry consumption in December based on the colour of the faeces of roosting birds, 3) the number of breeding great and blue tits, 4) both recapture probability and the return rate of the great tits and 5) immigration rates. December berry abundance positively predicted the number of breeding pairs of both species in the subsequent season and great tit return rates in the second half of the winter. There was support for a sex specific berry effect on the adult return rate in the great tit: female return rate was associated less strongly to berry abundance than male return rate. This skewed the sex ratio of the local breeders in the following breeding season. Intriguingly, annual berry consumption in December was not related to berry abundance, and individuals consuming more berries tended to have slightly lower return rates. Reproductive rate was not related to berry abundance. There was hardly support for a relation between immigration rates of first year breeders and berry abundance. Taken together these results imply that berry stock not only affected population size but also the population composition through sex specific exchange with the surroundings. Since population density covaried with berry abundance, density dependent effects provide an alternative explanation for the patterns observed.
Data from: Sea buckthorn berries (Hippophae rhamnoides L.) predict size and composition of a great tit population (Parus major L.).