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1.  Sex-biased parental investment is correlated with mate ornamentation in eastern bluebirds 
Animal behaviour  2010;79(3):727-734.
Males typically have greater variance in reproductive success than females, so mothers should benefit by producing sons under favorable conditions. Being paired with a better-than-average mate is one such favorable circumstance. High-quality fathers can improve conditions for their offspring by providing good genes, good resources, or both, so females paired to such males should invest preferentially in sons. Ornamentation has been linked to male quality in many birds and, in support of differential allocation theory, females of several avian species invest more in entire broods when paired to attractive mates. Additionally, the females of some bird species apparently manipulate the primary sex-ratio of their broods in relation to the attractiveness of their mates. However, empirical support for a link between mate ornamentation and preferential feeding of sons (another form of biased investment) is lacking. We tested for correlations between sex-biased parental investment and mate plumage colour in the eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis), a species in which juveniles have sexually dichromatic UV-blue plumage. We found that the proportion of maternal feeding attempts to fledgling sons (versus fledgling daughters) was positively correlated with structurally coloured plumage ornamentation of fathers. Additionally, paternal feeding attempts to sons were correlated with plumage ornamentation of mothers and increased in fathers exhibiting breast plumage characteristics typical of older males. These results provide further support for the idea that parental strategies are influenced by mate attractiveness and provide the first evidence that mate ornamentation can influence parental behavior even after offspring have left the nest.
PMCID: PMC2876345  PMID: 20514141
sex-ratio; parental behavior; resource allocation; ornaments; eastern bluebird; Sialia sialis; honest signal; plumage; colour
2.  The effect of rearing environment on blue structural coloration of eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) 
Behavioral ecology and sociobiology  2007;61(12):1839-1846.
We used a brood-size manipulation to test the effect of rearing environment on structural coloration of feathers grown by eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) nestlings. Ultraviolet (UV)-blue structural coloration has been shown to be sexually selected in this species. Our experimental design took advantage of the growth of UV-blue wing feathers in nestlings that are retained as part of the first nuptial plumage. We cross-fostered nestlings to create enlarged and reduced broods with the purpose of manipulating parental feeding rates and measured the effect on nestling growth and plumage coloration. Brood size influenced feeding rates to offspring, but the effect varied with season. In general, male nestlings reared in reduced broods were fed more often, weighed more, and displayed brighter structural plumage compared to nestlings reared in enlarged broods. Female nestlings appeared to experience less adverse affects of brood enlargement, and we did not detect an effect of brood-size manipulation on the plumage coloration of female nestlings. Measures of plumage coloration in both males and females, however, were correlated to hatching date and nestling mass during feather development. These data provide empirical evidence that environmental quality can influence the development of the blue structural coloration of feathers and that males may be more sensitive to environmental fluctuations than females.
PMCID: PMC2719904  PMID: 19655039
Structural plumage coloration; Condition-dependent traits; Sexual selection; Parental care; Parental effects
3.  Male eastern bluebirds trade future ornamentation for current reproductive investment 
Biology Letters  2005;1(2):208-211.
Life-history theory proposes that organisms must trade-off investment in current and future reproduction. Production of ornamental display is an important component of reproductive effort that has rarely been considered in tests of allocation trade-offs. Male eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) display brilliant ultraviolet-blue plumage that is correlated with mate acquisition and male competitive ability. To investigate trade-offs between current reproductive effort and the future expression of a sexually selected ornament, we manipulated the parental effort of males by changing their brood sizes. We found that parents provisioned experimentally enlarged broods more often than reduced broods. As predicted by life-history theory, the change in parental effort had a significant effect on the relative plumage ornamentation of males in the subsequent year: males with reduced broods significantly increased in plumage brightness. Moreover, this change in plumage coloration had a direct effect on the timing of breeding in the following season: males that displayed brighter plumage in the year following the manipulation mated with females that initiated egg laying earlier in the season. These data indicate that male bluebirds must trade-off conserving energy for production of future ornamentation versus expending energy for current reproduction.
PMCID: PMC1626227  PMID: 17148168
sexual selection; life-history evolution; trade-offs; structural plumage; parental effort
4.  Invasive Fire Ants Reduce Reproductive Success and Alter the Reproductive Strategies of a Native Vertebrate Insectivore 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(7):e22578.
Introduced organisms can alter ecosystems by disrupting natural ecological relationships. For example, red imported fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) have disrupted native arthropod communities throughout much of their introduced range. By competing for many of the same food resources as insectivorous vertebrates, fire ants also have the potential to disrupt vertebrate communities.
Methodology/Principal Findings
To explore the effects of fire ants on a native insectivorous vertebrate, we compared the reproductive success and strategies of eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) inhabiting territories with different abundances of fire ants. We also created experimental dyads of adjacent territories comprised of one territory with artificially reduced fire ant abundance (treated) and one territory that was unmanipulated (control). We found that more bluebird young fledged from treated territories than from adjacent control territories. Fire ant abundance also explained significant variation in two measures of reproductive success across the study population: number of fledglings and hatching success of second clutches. Furthermore, the likelihood of bluebird parents re-nesting in the same territory was negatively influenced by the abundance of foraging fire ants, and parents nesting in territories with experimentally reduced abundances of fire ants produced male-biased broods relative to pairs in adjacent control territories.
Introduced fire ants altered both the reproductive success (number of fledglings, hatching success) and strategies (decision to renest, offspring sex-ratio) of eastern bluebirds. These results illustrate the negative effects that invasive species can have on native biota, including species from taxonomically distant groups.
PMCID: PMC3140521  PMID: 21799904
5.  Brighter yellow blue tits make better parents. 
Whether or not bird ornaments are a signal for direct (e.g. good parents) or indirect (e.g. good genes) benefits to prospective partners in sexual selection is controversial. Carotene coloration in Parus species is directly related to the ingestion of caterpillars, so that a brightly carotene-coloured tit may be signalling its ability to find caterpillars, a main high-quality food source for good fledgling development, and hence its parental abilities. If carotene-based plumage coloration is related to the good-parent hypothesis, we predict that yellow plumage brightness of tit fathers should be positively correlated to their investment in offspring provisioning. Here, we use cross-fostering experiments in blue tits (Parus caeruleus) to show that chick development (as measured by tarsus length) is related to yellowness of the foster father, but not to that of the genetic parents. Using these data, we were able to measure, for the first time to our knowledge, the separate contribution of genetic and environmental factors (i.e. parental plumage coloration) to chick development, and hence parental investment. Our data, which relate carotenoid coloration to models of good parents, and data from other authors, which relate ultraviolet coloration to good-genes models, stress that different kinds of coloration within an individual may provide different units of information to prospective females.
PMCID: PMC1690890  PMID: 11839194
6.  Invasive ants alter foraging and parental behaviors of a native bird 
Introduced species can exert outsized impacts on native biota through both direct (predation) and indirect (competition) effects. Ants frequently become established in new areas after being transported by humans across traditional biological or geographical barriers, and a prime example of such establishment is the red imported fire ant (Solenopsis invicta). Introduced to North America in the 1930's, red imported fire ants are now firmly established throughout the southeastern United States. Although these invasive predators can dramatically impact native arthropods, their effect on vertebrates through resource competition is essentially unknown. Using a paired experimental design, we compared patterns of foraging and rates of provisioning for breeding eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) in unmanipulated (control) territories to those in adjacent (treated) territories where fire ants were experimentally reduced. Bluebirds inhabiting treated territories foraged nearer their nests and provisioned offspring more frequently than bluebirds inhabiting control territories with unmanipulated fire ant levels. Additionally, nestlings from treated territories were in better condition than those from control territories, though these differences were largely confined to early development. The elimination of significant differences in body condition towards the end of the nestling period suggests that bluebird parents in control territories were able to make up the food deficit caused by fire ants, potentially by working harder to adequately provision their offspring. The relationship between fire ant abundance and bluebird behavior hints at the complexity of ecological communities and suggests negative effects of invasive species are not limited to taxa with which they have direct contact.
PMCID: PMC3404743  PMID: 22844172
Invasive species; resource competition; parental care; Sialia sialis; Solenopsis invicta
7.  Sex-specific costs of reproduction in Eastern Bluebirds Sialia sialis 
The Ibis  2008;150(1):32-39.
In species with bi-parental care, individuals must partition energy between parental effort and mating effort. Typically, female songbirds invest more than males in reproductive activities such as egg-laying and incubation, but males invest more in secondary sexual traits used in attracting mates. Animals that breed more than once within a season must also allocate time and energy between first and subsequent breeding attempts and between current and future breeding seasons. To investigate strategies of reproductive investment by males and females and the consequences of such strategies, we manipulated the size of broods of Eastern Bluebirds Sialia sialis. Pairs with enlarged first broods were less likely to produce a second clutch or took longer to initiate one than pairs with reduced broods. After rearing enlarged broods, females were less likely than males to survive to the following year. Although plumage coloration is a sexually selected trait in Eastern Bluebirds that is influenced by nutritional stress, we did not detect an effect of brood-size manipulation on female coloration. Past research, however, demonstrates that, in males, plumage colour is negatively affected by increasing brood size. We suggest that there are sex-specific strategies of reproductive investment in Eastern Bluebirds, and that researchers should incorporate measures of residual reproductive value in studies of life-history evolution.
PMCID: PMC2756698  PMID: 19809582
brood manipulation; life-history evolution; multiple clutches; survival; trade-offs
8.  Winter resource wealth drives delayed dispersal and family-group living in western bluebirds 
Delayed dispersal, where offspring remain with parents beyond the usual period of dependence, is the typical route leading to formation of kin-based cooperative societies. The prevailing explanations for why offspring stay home are variation in resource wealth, in which offspring of wealthy parents benefit disproportionately by staying home, and nepotism, where the tendency for parents to be less aggressive and share food with offspring makes home a superior place to wait to breed. These hypotheses are not strict alternatives, as only wealthy parents have sufficient resources to share. In western bluebirds, Sialia mexicana, sons usually delay dispersal until after winter, gaining feeding advantages through maternal nepotism in a familial winter group. Experimentally reducing resource wealth (mistletoe) by half on winter territories caused sons to disperse in summer, even though their parents remained on the territory during the winter. Only 8% of sons remained with their parents on mistletoe-removal territories compared to 50% of sons on control territories (t9,10=3.33, p<0.005). This study is the first to demonstrate that experimentally reducing wealth of a natural food resource reduces delayed dispersal, facilitating nepotism and family-group living. The results clarify the roles of year-round residency, resource limitation and relative wealth outside the breeding season in facilitating the formation of kin-based cooperative societies.
PMCID: PMC1559973  PMID: 16243691
dispersal; cooperative breeding; mistletoe; bluebird; resource wealth
9.  Sexually Selected Male Plumage Color Is Testosterone Dependent in a Tropical Passerine Bird, the Red-Backed Fairy-Wren (Malurus melanocephalus) 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(10):e26067.
Sexual signals, such as bright plumage coloration in passerine birds, reflect individual quality, and testosterone (T) may play a critical role in maintaining signal honesty. Manipulations of T during molt have yielded mixed effects on passerine plumage color, in most cases delaying molt or leading to production of drab plumage. However, the majority of these studies have been conducted on species that undergo a post-nuptial molt when T is low; the role of T in species that acquire breeding plumage during a pre-nuptial molt remains largely unexplored.
Methodology/Principal Findings
We experimentally tested the effects of increased T on plumage color in second-year male red-backed fairy-wrens (Malurus melanocephalus), a species in which after-second-year males undergo a pre-nuptial molt into red/black (carotenoid and melanin-based) plumage and second-year males either assume red/black or brown breeding plumage. T treatment stimulated a rapid and early onset pre-nuptial molt and resulted in red/black plumage acquisition, bill darkening, and growth of the sperm storage organ, but had no effect on body condition or corticosterone concentrations. Control males molted later and assumed brown plumage. T treated males produced feathers with similar but not identical reflectance parameters to those of unmanipulated after-second-year red/black males; while reflectance spectra of red back and black crown feathers were similar, black breast feathers differed in UV chroma, hue and brightness, indicating a potentially age and plumage patch-dependent response to T for melanin- vs. carotenoid-pigmentation.
We show that testosterone is the primary mechanism functioning during the pre-nuptial molt to regulate intrasexually variable plumage color and breeding phenotype in male red-backed fairy-wrens. Our results suggest that the effects of T on plumage coloration may vary with timing of molt (pre- vs. post-nuptial), and that the role of T in mediating plumage signal production may differ across age classes, plumage patches, and between pigment-types.
PMCID: PMC3187837  PMID: 21998753
10.  Better red than dead: carotenoid-based mouth coloration reveals infection in barn swallow nestlings. 
Nestling birds solicit food from their parents by displaying their open brightly coloured gapes. Carotenoids affect gape colour, but also play a central role in immunostimulation. Therefore, we hypothesize that, by differentially allocating resources to nestlings with more brightly coloured gapes, parents favour healthy offspring which are able to allocate carotenoids to gape coloration without compromising their immune defence. We demonstrated that, in the barn swallow Hirundo rustica, (i) parents differentially allocate food to nestlings with an experimentally brighter red gape, (ii) nestlings challenged with a novel antigen (sheep red blood cells, SRBCs) have less bright gape colour than their control siblings, (iii) nestlings challenged with SRBCs but also provided with the principal circulating carotenoid (lutein) have more brightly coloured red gapes than their challenged but unsupplemented siblings and (iv) the gape colour of nestlings challenged with SRBCs and provisioned with lutein exceeds that of siblings that were unchallenged. This suggests that parents may favour nestlings with superior health by preferentially feeding offspring with the brightest gapes.
PMCID: PMC1690492  PMID: 10670953
11.  Sex-Related Effects of an Immune Challenge on Growth and Begging Behavior of Barn Swallow Nestlings 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(7):e22805.
Parent-offspring conflicts lead the offspring to evolve reliable signals of individual quality, including parasite burden, which may allow parents to adaptively modulate investment in the progeny. Sex-related variation in offspring reproductive value, however, may entail differential investment in sons and daughters. Here, we experimentally manipulated offspring condition in the barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) by subjecting nestlings to an immune challenge (injection with bacterial lipopolysaccharide, LPS) that simulates a bacterial infection, and assessed the effects on growth, feather quality, expression of morphological (gape coloration) and behavioral (posture) begging displays involved in parent-offspring communication, as well as on food allocation by parents. Compared to sham-injected controls, LPS-treated chicks suffered a depression of body mass and a reduction of palate color saturation. In addition, LPS treatment resulted in lower feather quality, with an increase in the occurrence of fault bars on wing feathers. The color of beak flanges, feather growth and the intensity of postural begging were affected by LPS treatment only in females, suggesting that chicks of either sex are differently susceptible to the immune challenge. However, irrespective of the effects of LPS, parents equally allocated food among control and challenged offspring both under normal food provisioning and after a short period of food deprivation of the chicks. These results indicate that bacterial infection and the associated immune response entail different costs to offspring of either sex, but a decrease in nestling conditions does not affect parental care allocation, possibly because the barn swallow adopts a brood-survival strategy. Finally, we showed that physiological stress induced by pathogens impairs plumage quality, a previously neglected major negative impact of bacterial infection which could severely affect fitness, particularly among long-distance migratory birds.
PMCID: PMC3144944  PMID: 21818393
12.  Great Spotted Cuckoo Fledglings Often Receive Feedings from Other Magpie Adults than Their Foster Parents: Which Magpies Accept to Feed Foreign Cuckoo Fledglings? 
PLoS ONE  2014;9(10):e107412.
Natural selection penalizes individuals that provide costly parental care to non-relatives. However, feedings to brood-parasitic fledglings by individuals other than their foster parents, although anecdotic, have been commonly observed, also in the great spotted cuckoo (Clamator glandarius) – magpie (Pica pica) system, but this behaviour has never been studied in depth. In a first experiment, we here show that great spotted cuckoo fledglings that were translocated to a distant territory managed to survive. This implies that obtaining food from foreign magpies is a frequent and efficient strategy used by great spotted cuckoo fledglings. A second experiment, in which we presented a stuffed-cuckoo fledgling in magpie territories, showed that adult magpies caring for magpie fledglings responded aggressively in most of the trials and never tried to feed the stuffed cuckoo, whereas magpies that were caring for cuckoo fledglings reacted rarely with aggressive behavior and were sometimes disposed to feed the stuffed cuckoo. In a third experiment we observed feedings to post-fledgling cuckoos by marked adult magpies belonging to four different possibilities with respect to breeding status (i.e. composition of the brood: only cuckoos, only magpies, mixed, or failed breeding attempt). All non-parental feeding events to cuckoos were provided by magpies that were caring only for cuckoo fledglings. These results strongly support the conclusion that cuckoo fledglings that abandon their foster parents get fed by other adult magpies that are currently caring for other cuckoo fledglings. These findings are crucial to understand the co-evolutionary arms race between brood parasites and their hosts because they show that the presence of the host's own nestlings for comparison is likely a key clue to favour the evolution of fledgling discrimination and provide new insights on several relevant points such as learning mechanisms and multiparasitism.
PMCID: PMC4182665  PMID: 25272009
13.  Social Environment Affects Acquisition and Color of Structural Nuptial Plumage in a Sexually Dimorphic Tropical Passerine 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(10):e47501.
Structural colors result from the physical interaction of light with organic materials of differing refractive indexes organized at nanoscale dimensions to produce significant interference effects. Because color properties emerge from these finely organized nanostructures, the production of structural coloration could respond to environmental factors and be developmentally more plastic than expected, functioning as an indicator of individual quality. However, there are many unknown factors concerning the function and mechanisms regulating structural coloration, especially relative to social environment. We hypothesized that social environment, in the form of competitive settings, can influence the developmental pathways involving production of feather structural coloration. We experimentally assessed the impact of social environment upon body condition, molt and spectral properties of two types of structural color that compose the nuptial plumage in blue-black grassquits: black iridescent plumage and white underwing patches. We manipulated male social environment during nine months by keeping individuals in three treatments: (1) pairs; (2) all-male groups; and (3) male-female mixed groups. All morphological characters and spectral plumage measures varied significantly through time, but only acquisition of nuptial plumage coverage and nuptial plumage color were influenced by social environment. Compared with males in the paired treatment, those in treatments with multiple males molted into nuptial plumage faster and earlier, and their plumage was more UV-purple-shifted. Our results provide experimental evidence that social context strongly influences development and expression of structural plumage. These results emphasize the importance of long-term experimental studies to identify the phenotypic consequences of social dynamics relative to ornament expression.
PMCID: PMC3474847  PMID: 23082172
14.  Nanostructure predicts intraspecific variation in ultraviolet-blue plumage colour. 
Evidence suggests that structural plumage colour can be an honest signal of individual quality, but the mechanisms responsible for the variation in expression of structural coloration within a species have not been identified. We used full-spectrum spectrometry and transmission electron microscopy to investigate the effect of variation in the nanostructure of the spongy layer on expression of structural ultraviolet (UV)-blue coloration in eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) feathers. Fourier analysis revealed that feather nanostructure was highly organized but did not accurately predict variation in hue. Within the spongy layer of feather barbs, the number of circular keratin rods significantly predicted UV-violet chroma, whereas the standard error of the diameter of these rods significantly predicted spectral saturation. These observations show that the precision of nanostructural arrangement determines some colour variation in feathers.
PMCID: PMC1691395  PMID: 12965009
15.  Color expression in experimentally regrown feathers of an overwintering migratory bird: implications for signaling and seasonal interactions 
Ecology and Evolution  2014;4(8):1222-1232.
Plumage coloration in birds plays a critical role in communication and can be under selection throughout the annual cycle as a sexual and social signal. However, for migratory birds, little is known about the acquisition and maintenance of colorful plumage during the nonbreeding period. Winter habitat could influence the quality of colorful plumage, ultimately carrying over to influence sexual selection and social interactions during the breeding period. In addition to the annual growth of colorful feathers, feather loss from agonistic interactions or predator avoidance could require birds to replace colorful feathers in winter or experience plumage degradation. We hypothesized that conditions on the wintering grounds of migratory birds influence the quality of colorful plumage. We predicted that the quality of American redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) tail feathers regrown after experimental removal in Jamaica, West Indies, would be positively associated with habitat quality, body condition, and testosterone. Both yearling (SY) and adult (ASY) males regrew feathers with lower red chroma, suggesting reduced carotenoid content. While we did not observe a change in hue in ASY males, SY males shifted from yellow to orange plumage resembling experimentally regrown ASY feathers. We did not observe any effects of habitat, testosterone, or mass change. Our results demonstrate that redstarts are limited in their ability to adequately replace colorful plumage, regardless of habitat, in winter. Thus, feather loss on the nonbreeding grounds can affect social signals, potentially negatively carrying over to the breeding period.
PMCID: PMC4020684  PMID: 24834321
American redstart; carotenoid; delayed plumage maturation; molt; plumage color; Setophaga ruticilla
16.  Factors Affecting Vocalization in Tengmalm’s Owl (Aegolius funereus) Fledglings during Post-Fledging Dependence Period: Scramble Competition or Honest Signalling of Need? 
PLoS ONE  2014;9(4):e95594.
Begging behaviour of nestlings has been intensively studied for several decades as a key component of parent-offspring conflict. There are essentially two main theories to account for intensity of food solicitation among offspring: that intensity of begging is related to some form of scramble competition between nest mates or that it offers honest signalling of need to parents. The vast majority of studies which have addressed begging behaviour have been based on observations of, and experiments on, nestlings and have not considered begging behaviour, during the post-fledging period. Begging vocalizations in this post-fledging phase of dependence have rarely been studied, despite the importance of vocalizations as a communication method between offspring and parents, particularly for nocturnal species. We radiotracked 39 fledglings of the Tengmalm’s owl (Aegolius funereus) in two years with different availability of prey: 2010 (n = 29 fledglings) and 2011 (n = 10 fledglings) and made 1320 nightly localizations in which we recorded presence or absence of begging calls. Within years, the most important measures related to the probability of vocalization were body condition at fledging, time of night, number of surviving siblings, age and weather conditions. Begging intensity increased with age in both years; however, in the year with low prey availability fledglings vocalized significantly more often. The main factor causing these differences between years was probably the different availability of prey, affecting breeding success, post-fledging behaviour, and thus also both short- and long-term needs of offspring. We believe that our results suggest honest signalling of their fledgling’s need.
PMCID: PMC3997414  PMID: 24760102
17.  Maternal effects and range expansion: a key factor in a dynamic process? 
Species that depend on ephemeral habitat often evolve distinct dispersal strategies in which the propensity to disperse is closely integrated with a suite of morphological, behavioural and physiological traits that influence colonizing ability. These strategies are maintained by natural selection resulting from spatial and temporal variation in resource abundance and are particularly evident during range expansion. Yet the mechanisms that maintain close alignment of such strategies with resource availability, integrate suites of dispersal traits and generate variability in dispersal propensity are rarely known. Breeding females can influence offspring phenotype in response to changes in current environmental conditions, making maternal effects uniquely suited to bridge fluctuations in resource abundance in the maternal generation and variation in offspring dispersal ability. Western bluebirds' (Sialia mexicana) dependence on nest cavities—an ephemeral resource—has led to the evolution of two distinct dispersal phenotypes: aggressive males that disperse and non-aggressive males that remain philopatric and cooperate with their relatives. Over the last 40 years, western bluebirds rapidly expanded their geographical range, providing us with an opportunity to test, in newly established populations, the importance of maternal effects for generating variability in dispersal propensity. Here, I show that, under variable resource conditions, breeding females group offspring of different competitive ability in different positions in the egg-laying order and, consequently, produce aggressive males that are more likely to disperse when resources are low and non-aggressive philopatric males when resources are abundant. I then show experimentally that the association between resource availability and sex-specific birth order is robust across populations. Thus, this maternal effect enables close tracking of resource availability and may explain how variation in dispersal is generated in newly colonized populations. More generally, these results suggest that, as a key source of variation in colonizing phenotypes, maternal effects are of crucial importance for understanding the dynamics of range expansion.
PMCID: PMC2666686  PMID: 19324612
maternal effect; resource competition; adaptive plasticity; environmental heterogeneity; dispersal; aggression
18.  Do Zebra Finch Parents Fail to Recognise Their Own Offspring? 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(4):e18466.
Individual recognition systems require the sender to be individually distinctive and the receiver to be able to perceive differences between individuals and react accordingly. Many studies have demonstrated that acoustic signals of almost any species contain individualized information. However, fewer studies have tested experimentally if those signals are used for individual recognition by potential receivers. While laboratory studies using zebra finches have shown that fledglings recognize their parents by their “distance call”, mutual recognition using the same call type has not been demonstrated yet. In a laboratory study with zebra finches, we first quantified between-individual acoustic variation in distance calls of fledglings. In a second step, we tested recognition of fledgling calls by parents using playback experiments. With a discriminant function analysis, we show that individuals are highly distinctive and most measured parameters show very high potential to encode for individuality. The response pattern of zebra finch parents shows that they do react to calls of fledglings, however they do not distinguish between own and unfamiliar offspring, despite individual distinctiveness. This finding is interesting in light of the observation of a high percentage of misdirected feedings in our communal breeding aviaries. Our results demonstrate the importance of adopting a receiver's perspective and suggest that variation in fledgling contact calls might not be used in individual recognition of offspring.
PMCID: PMC3076377  PMID: 21533233
19.  Parental Age and Lifespan Influence Offspring Recruitment: A Long-Term Study in a Seabird 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(11):e27245.
Recent studies of wild populations provide compelling evidence that survival and reproduction decrease with age because of senescence, a decline in functional capacities at old ages. However, in the wild, little is known about effects of parental senescence on offspring quality. We used data from a 21-year study to examine the role of parental age on offspring probability of recruitment in a long-lived bird, the blue-footed booby (Sula nebouxii). Offspring probability of recruiting into the breeding population varied over the life of parents and effects age were similar in mothers and fathers. Offspring recruitment was high when parents were roughly 6–12 years old and low before and after then. Effects of parental age on offspring recruitment varied with lifespan (parental age at last reproduction) and previous breeding experience. Offspring recruitment from young and old parents with long reproductive lifespans was greater than that of offspring from parents with short lifespans at young and old ages. For parents with little previous breeding experience recruitment of offspring decreased with their hatch date, but experienced parents were no similarly affected. We found evidence of terminal effects on offspring recruitment in young parents but not in older parents, suggesting that senescence is more likely a gradual process of deterioration than a process of terminal illness. Failure to recruit probably reflects mortality during the first years after independence but also during the fledgling transition to full independence. Our results show effects of parental age and quality on offspring viability in a long-lived wild vertebrate and support the idea that wild populations are composed of individuals of different quality, and that this individual heterogeneity can influence the dynamics of age-structured populations.
PMCID: PMC3210767  PMID: 22087271
20.  Coadaptation of Offspring Begging and Parental Provisioning - An Evolutionary Ecological Perspective on Avian Family Life 
PLoS ONE  2013;8(7):e70463.
Offspring begging and parental provisioning are the two central social behaviours expressed during the period of parental care. Both behaviours influence each other and it is, therefore, hypothesized that they should ultimately become (genetically) correlated, stabilized by fitness costs to parents and/or offspring. By reciprocally exchanging entire clutches in canaries (Serinus canaria), we tested (1) whether there is covariation between these behaviours and (2) whether a mismatch - as introduced by cross-fostering - entails costs. Begging was scored in a standardized begging test and parental provisioning was measured via (a) the actual feeding rate and (b) using the growth rate of the foster nestlings as a proxy. Costs were established in terms of future reproductive investment in subsequent clutches and offspring growth. We found a positive and significant phenotypic covariation between offspring begging and parental feeding when using the growth rate as a proxy and, to a lesser extent, in case of the parental feeding rate. Female parents suffered no future reproductive costs when feeding foster nestlings that were more demanding than their own nestlings. Neither growth measured amongst all offspring nor the reproductive investment measured amongst the female offspring as adults was influenced by their begging behaviour. However, the reproductive investment of female offspring tended to depend on the parental qualities of their foster parents. Thus, offspring may only be able to extract resources within the limit of generosity of their foster parents. This suggests parental control of feeding, which is also supported by the positive covariation between offspring begging and parental feeding.
PMCID: PMC3716698  PMID: 23894662
21.  Comparing food limitation among three stages of nesting: supplementation experiments with the burrowing owl 
Ecology and Evolution  2013;3(8):2684-2695.
Food availability is an important limiting factor for avian reproduction. In altricial birds, food limitation is assumed to be more severe during the nestling stage than during laying or incubation, but this has yet to be adequately tested. Using food-supplementation experiments over a 5-year period, we determined the degree and timing of food limitation for burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia) breeding in Canada. Burrowing owls are an endangered species and food limitation during the nestling stage could influence reproductive performance of this species at the northern extent of their range. Supplemented pairs fledged on average 47% more owlets than unfed pairs, except during a year when natural food was not limiting (i.e., a prey irruption year). The difference in fledgling production resulted from high nestling mortality in unfed broods, with 96% of all nestling deaths being attributed to food shortage. Supplemental feeding during the nestling period also increased fledgling structural size. Pairs fed from the start of laying produced the same number of hatchlings as pairs that received no supplemental food before hatch. Furthermore, pairs supplemented from egg laying to fledging and pairs supplemented during the nestling period alone had the same patterns of nestling survival, equal numbers of fledglings, and similar fledgling mass and structural size. Our results provide empirical support for the hypothesis that the nestling period is the most food-limited phase of the breeding cycle. The experimental design we introduce here could be used with other altricial species to examine how the timing of food limitation differs among birds with a variety of life-history strategies. For burrowing owls, and other species with similar life histories, long-term, large-scale, and appropriately timed habitat management increasing prey abundance or availability is critical for conservation.
Our results provide empirical support for the hypothesis that the nestling period is the most food-limited phase of the breeding cycle. For burrowing owls, and other species with similar life histories, long-term, large-scale, and appropriately timed habitat management increasing prey abundance or availability is critical for conservation.
PMCID: PMC3930041  PMID: 24567832
Brood reduction; fledgling production; fledgling size; grassland; nestling survival; raptor; timing food limitation
22.  Juveniles exposed to embryonic corticosterone have enhanced flight performance 
Exposure to maternally derived glucocorticoids during embryonic development impacts offspring phenotype. Although many of these effects appear to be transiently ‘negative’, embryonic exposure to maternally derived stress hormones is hypothesized to induce preparative responses that increase survival prospects for offspring in low-quality environments; however, little is known about how maternal stress influences longer-term survival-related performance traits in free-living individuals. Using an experimental elevation of yolk corticosterone (embryonic signal of low maternal quality), we examined potential impacts of embryonic exposure to maternally derived stress on flight performance, wing loading, muscle morphology and muscle physiology in juvenile European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris). Here we report that fledglings exposed to experimentally increased corticosterone in ovo performed better during flight performance trials than control fledglings. Consistent with differences in performance, individuals exposed to elevated embryonic corticosterone fledged with lower wing loading and had heavier and more functionally mature flight muscles compared with control fledglings. Our results indicate that the positive effects on a survival-related trait in response to embryonic exposure to maternally derived stress hormones may balance some of the associated negative developmental costs that have recently been reported. Moreover, if embryonic experience is a good predictor of the quality or risk of future environments, a preparative phenotype associated with exposure to apparently negative stimuli during development may be adaptive.
PMCID: PMC2664354  PMID: 18842541
yolk hormones; corticosterone; embryonic stress; flight performance; survival; European starling
23.  Sexual conflict predicts morphology and behavior in two species of penduline tits 
The evolutionary interests of males and females rarely coincide (sexual conflict), and these conflicting interests influence morphology, behavior and speciation in various organisms. We examined consequences of variation in sexual conflict in two closely-related passerine birds with contrasting breeding systems: the Eurasian penduline tit Remiz pendulinus (EPT) exhibiting a highly polygamous breeding system with sexually antagonistic interests over parental care, and the socially monogamous Cape penduline tit Anthoscopus minutus (CPT). We derived four a priori predictions from sexual conflict theory and tested these using data collected in Central Europe (EPT) and South Africa (CPT). Firstly, we predicted that EPTs exhibit more sexually dimorphic plumage than CPTs due to more intense sexual selection. Secondly, we expected brighter EPT males to provide less care than duller males. Thirdly, since song is a sexually selected trait in many birds, male EPTs were expected to exhibit more complex songs than CPT males. Finally, intense sexual conflict in EPT was expected to lead to low nest attendance as an indication of sexually antagonistic interests, whereas we expected more cooperation between parents in CPT consistent with their socially monogamous breeding system.
Consistent with our predictions EPTs exhibited greater sexual dimorphism in plumage and more complex song than CPTs, and brighter EPT males provided less care than duller ones. EPT parents attended the nest less frequently and less simultaneously than CPT parents.
These results are consistent with sexual conflict theory: species in which sexual conflict is more manifested (EPT) exhibited a stronger sexual dimorphism and more elaborated sexually selected traits than species with less intense sexual conflict (CPT). Our results are also consistent with the notion that EPTs attempt to force their partner to work harder as expected under sexual conflict: each member of the breeding pair attempts to shift the costs of care to the other parent. More brightly colored males benefit more from desertion than dull ones, because they are more likely to remate with a new female. Taken together, the comparison between two closely related species with contrasting breeding systems suggest that sexual conflict over care has influenced the evolution of behavior and morphology in penduline tits.
PMCID: PMC2873415  PMID: 20416066
24.  Passerine Exposure to Primarily PCDFs and PCDDs in the River Floodplains Near Midland, Michigan, USA 
House wren (Troglodytes aedon), tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor), and eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) tissues collected in study areas (SAs) downstream of Midland, Michigan (USA) contained concentrations of polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDFs) and polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins (PCDDs) greater than in upstream reference areas (RAs) in the region. The sum of concentrations of PCDD/DFs (ΣPCDD/DFs) in eggs of house wrens and eastern bluebirds from SAs were 4- to 22-fold greater compared to those from RAs, whereas concentrations in tree swallow eggs were similar among areas. Mean concentrations of ΣPCDD/DFs and sum 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin equivalents (ΣTEQsWHO-Avian), based on 1998 WHO avian toxic equivalency factors, in house wren and eastern bluebird eggs ranged from 860 (430) to 1500 (910) ng/kg wet weight (ww) and 470 (150) to 1100 (510) ng/kg ww, respectively, at the most contaminated study areas along the Tittabawassee River, whereas mean concentrations in tree swallow eggs ranged from 280 (100) to 760 (280) ng/kg ww among all locations. Concentrations of ΣPCDD/DFs in nestlings of all studied species at SAs were 3- to 50-fold greater compared to RAs. Mean house wren, tree swallow, and eastern bluebird nestling concentrations of ΣPCDD/DFs and ΣTEQsWHO-Avian ranged from 350 (140) to 610 (300) ng/kg ww, 360 (240) to 1100 (860) ng/kg ww, and 330 (100) to 1200 (690) ng/kg ww, respectively, at SAs along the Tittabawassee River. Concentrations of ΣTEQsWHO-Avian were positively correlated with ΣPCDD/DF concentrations in both eggs and nestlings of all species studied. Profiles of relative concentrations of individual congeners were dominated by furan congeners (69–84%), primarily 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzofuran and 2,3,4,7,8-pentachlorodibenzofuran, for all species at SAs on the Tittabawassee and Saginaw rivers but were dominated by dioxin congeners at upstream RAs.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1007/s00244-009-9416-6) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
PMCID: PMC2860562  PMID: 19894014
25.  Direct versus indirect sexual selection: genetic basis of colour, size and recruitment in a wild bird 
Indirect and direct models of sexual selection make different predictions regarding the quantitative genetic relationships between sexual ornaments and fitness. Indirect models predict that ornaments should have a high heritability and that strong positive genetic covariance should exist between fitness and the ornament. Direct models, on the other hand, make no such assumptions about the level of genetic variance in fitness and the ornament, and are therefore likely to be more important when environmental sources of variation are large. Here we test these predictions in a wild population of the blue tit (Parus caeruleus), a species in which plumage coloration has been shown to be under sexual selection. Using 3 years of cross-fostering data from over 250 breeding attempts, we partition the covariance between parental coloration and aspects of nestling fitness into a genetic and environmental component. Contrary to indirect models of sexual selection, but in agreement with direct models, we show that variation in coloration is only weakly heritable (h2<0.11), and that two components of offspring fitness—nestling size and fledgling recruitment—are strongly dependent on parental effects, rather than genetic effects. Furthermore, there was no evidence of significant positive genetic covariation between parental colour and offspring traits. Contrary to direct benefit models, however, we find little evidence that variation in colour reliably indicates the level of parental care provided by either males or females. Taken together, these results indicate that the assumptions of indirect models of sexual selection are not supported by the genetic basis of the traits reported on here.
PMCID: PMC1560293  PMID: 16777722
sexual selection; genetic variance covariance matrix; blue tit; colour

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