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The Frequency and Timing of Courtship and Copulation in Blackbirds, Turdus Merula, Reflect Sperm Competition and Sexual Conflict

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In a long-term field study we estimated the number of copulations per pair in blackbirds at 24.2 in a single reproductive cycle. Thus it seems unlikely that the only function of copulation behaviour is just to guarantee fertilization. We considered three other hypotheses which might explain frequent pair copulation: (1) as an effect of sperm competition, (2) cooperation between pair members aiming at increasing joint production of offspring; or, (3) sexual conflict resulting in female manipulation of allocation of time and energy of the male. We found no positive correlation between the copulation frequency and reproductive performance, a result that essentially falsifies the cooperation hypothesis. Only two extra-pair copulations were recorded. However, attempts at forced extra-pair copulation were very common and a high pair copulation rate might have evolved in response to sperm competition. Alternately, relatively high copulation rate in the pre-fertile stage of the reproductive cycle and female control over timing and frequency of copulation (via solicitation of copulation and/or rejection of courtship by the male) also supports the sexual conflict scenario. We suggest that our findings support the idea that the female prolongs the period of sexual activity to induce her partner to guard her (which reduces sexual coercion from other males) and to monopolise his parental effort (the male while mate guarding cannot pursue extra-pair activity or search for better mating options).

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