1. Although density‐dependent regulation of population growth is thought to be relatively widespread in nature, density‐independent models are often used to project the population response to drivers of change. Such models are often considered to provide a maximum estimate of mortality and therefore offer a precautionary approach to impact assessment. However, this perception assumes that density dependence operates as compensatory (negative density dependence), and overlooks that other forms of density dependence, such as depensation (positive density dependence), would generate a contrasting population response.
2. Currently, there is debate about including density‐dependent mechanisms in models that assess the impact of offshore wind farms on marine bird populations. Density dependence is considered poorly understood for this group of species. Consequently, it is either excluded from assessments, or incorporated in a compensatory form that has little empirical validation.
3. We reviewed the evidence for compensatory and depensatory regulation of 31 marine bird species, and conducted a meta‐analysis to examine the functional shape of density‐dependent population growth. The evidence was also evaluated in relation to established species‐specific indices of wind farm vulnerability in order to assess whether compensatory mechanisms are likely to offset losses associated with collision or displacement.
4. Compensatory regulation was reported across all of the demographic processes and focal groups considered, and was attributed to a variety of causal mechanisms. The strength of compensatory population growth appeared consistent between colonies; however, the regulation of productivity was highly context‐dependent with a similar number of studies reporting compensatory, depensatory and insignificant effects. Depensation was consistently attributed to increased rates of predation at lower population densities.
5. Synthesis and applications. We conclude that among marine bird species with high vulnerability to wind farms, compensatory regulation is unlikely to offset large and sustained losses from the breeding population. In addition, depensation has the potential to accelerate population declines and generate local or regional extinctions, especially in smaller colonial species. Consequently, density‐independent models will not offer a consistently precautionary approach for assessing the potential impact of wind farms on marine bird populations. Instead, assessments should examine the potential population response using a range of density‐dependent structures.