One potential determinant of colony size in birds is the local availability of food near a nesting site. Insectivorous Cliff Swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) in southwestern Nebraska nest in colonies ranging from 2 to over 3,000 nests, but they feed on so many kinds of insects that direct sampling of food resources is impractical. Instead, we investigated the degree to which swallow colony size was correlated with the extent of different habitat types, land use diversity, and plant species diversity in the colony's foraging range, and used those parameters as indices of potential variation among sites in food availability. Amount of flowing and standing water in the foraging range was a significant predictor of mean colony size across years at a site, with larger colonies associated with more water. The same result held for most years when analyzed separately. The extent of flowing water in the foraging range also was a significant predictor of the frequency with which a site was occupied across years. In addition, univariate tests suggested that the amount of cultivated cropland in the foraging range varied inversely with colony size. Land use diversity, as measured by Simpson's index, increased significantly with colony size, and all of the sites with perennially very large colonies (mean colony size >1,000 nests) were associated with foraging ranges of relatively high land use diversity. Repeatability of colony size across years differed significantly from zero across all sites, but repeatabilities were significantly lower (colony sizes less similar between years) for sites situated in low-diversity habitats and for sites used less often. There was no strong effect of plant species diversity within the foraging range on either colony size at a site or likelihood of site use. We conclude that land use diversity per se (and possibly the extent of water near a site) might influence insect distribution and constrain formation of the larger colonies to certain sites. These findings emphasize that colony choice in Cliff Swallows is complex, reflecting both the socially mediated costs and benefits of group size that vary among individuals and the effects of habitat heterogeneity that may influence food availability at some sites.
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Vol. 119 • No. 2