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How males in the house wren, a cavity-nesting songbird, discover that eggs have hatched and transition to provisioning nestlings

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In many bird species that conceal nests within cavities or burrows, only females incubate eggs, but both sexes feed young after hatching. How males in such species discover that eggs have hatched and start provisioning offspring is unknown. We video-taped 26 house wren (Troglodytes aedon) nests continuously before, during, and after hatching began to test four hypotheses as to how males might learn of hatching: (i) females signal hatching to males; (ii) males hear hatchlings vocalizing; (iii) males observe changes in their mate's behaviour (e.g., entering and exiting nests more frequently and/or carrying eggshells or food); and (iv) males enter the nest cavity and encounter hatchlings directly. We did not detect any unique visual or vocal displays by females immediately post-hatching and so could not support the first hypothesis. At only three of 26 nests did it appear that males might have been stimulated to begin feeding solely as a result of either hearing offspring from outside the nest or observing changes in their mate's behaviour. Rather, males at most nests did not begin delivering food until after they had entered nest cavities and presumably had direct visual and/or tactile contact with hatchlings, even though most of these males previously had the opportunity to hear offspring from outside nests and/or see their mates acting parentally. Our finding that most males do not start delivering food until they have had direct exposure to young is consistent with recent neurological studies in mammals and birds that suggest direct exposure to young triggers a cascade of gene expression in the brain that induces nurturing behaviour.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Biological Sciences, Towson University, Towson, MD 21252, USA; 2: Department of Biological Sciences, Towson University, Towson, MD 21252, USA; Department of Biology, Tufts University, Medford, MA 02155, USA.


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