Density regulation influences population dynamics through its effects on demographic rates and consequently constitutes a key mechanism explaining the response of organisms to environmental changes. Yet, it is difficult to establish the exact form of density dependence from empirical data. Here, we developed an individual-based model to explore how resource limitation and behavioural processes determine the spatial structure of white stork Ciconia ciconia populations and regulate reproductive rates. We found that the form of density dependence differed considerably between landscapes with the same overall resource availability and between home range selection strategies, highlighting the importance of fine-scale resource distribution in interaction with behaviour. In accordance with theories of density dependence, breeding output generally decreased with density but this effect was highly variable and strongly affected by optimal foraging strategy, resource detection probability and colonial behaviour. Moreover, our results uncovered an overlooked consequence of density dependence by showing that high early nestling mortality in storks, assumed to be the outcome of harsh weather, may actually result from density dependent effects on food provision. Our findings emphasize that accounting for interactive effects of individual behaviour and local environmental factors is crucial for understanding density-dependent processes within spatially structured populations. Enhanced understanding of the ways animal populations are regulated in general, and how habitat conditions and behaviour may dictate spatial population structure and demographic rates is critically needed for predicting the dynamics of populations, communities and ecosystems under changing environmental conditions.
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