We observed ten species of psittacids, three species of columbids, and two species of cracids consuming soil from banks of the lower Tambopata River in southeastern Peru. Our study used observations and soil analyses from eight exposed riverbank sections to test the predictions of three models to determine why birds consume clay: mechanical aid to digestion (grit), adsorption of dietary toxins, and mineral supplementation. We found that preferred soils were deficient in particles large enough to aid in the mechanical breakdown of food and help digestion. Percent clay content and cation exchange capacity (CEC), both predicted to correlate with adsorption of toxins, did not differ between used and unused sites as had been found in a similar study. Instead, preferred soils were more saline and had higher concentrations of exchangeable sodium. This suggests that the choice of soils at our site was based primarily on sodium content. Birds may be using the heavy, plastic texture of soils rich in clays and high in exchangeable sodium as a proximal cue for soil selection. Our findings suggest that avian soil selection decisions depend on the range of available soil characteristics.
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Vol. 36 • No. 4