Human disturbance provides foraging opportunities for birds in primary subalpine forest

Interspecific foraging associations are well-documented phenomena, characterized by one or more species exploiting the behavior of another species to decrease predation or increase foraging success. In rare cases, birds directly exploit human behavior, but examples of these interactions are limited to species that naturally occur in edge, open, or disturbed habitats. With observations and experiments we provide evidence of insectivorous birds exploiting human disturbance in primary subalpine forest in the mountains of southern China, displaying behavioral flexibility to gain novel foraging opportunities. We cut and cleared small swaths of dense bamboo growth for an unrelated study. Multiple insectivorous species were recruited to the cleared areas, foraging extensively in the disturbed earth, often within 1 m of us. These species included Tarsiger chrysaeus, Tarsiger indicus, Cettia brunnifrons or Cettia major, and Heteroxenicus stellatus. This behavior is likely a modification of pre-existing interspecific foraging associations with pheasants and large mammals in the region. These larger animals disturb the earth and lower vegetation layers upon passage and while foraging, exposing previously inaccessible invertebrate prey items on which small insectivorous birds can feed. Our findings highlight a behavioral capacity in birds to utilize human disturbance in an ecosystem with limited human presence.