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A Functional Analysis of Courtship Feeding in the Red-Billed Gull, Larus Novaehollandiae Scopulinus

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The courtship behaviour of red-billed gulls (Larus novaehollandiae scopulinus) was observed in a breeding colony at Kaikoura, New Zealand, from 14 November to 30 December 1967, 1 August to 30 November 1968, and 22 September to 30 October 1973, to examine the functional aspects of courtship feeding of the female by the male. Twenty pairs of individually marked gulls were observed for 3 to 6 hours per day during the pre-laying period and the early stages of incubation. All behaviour that formed part of courtship feeding or copulation was recorded. The actions involved in courtship feeding and copulation behaviour are described. Eighty-seven per cent of the instances of feeding of the female by the male occurred after the return of the latter to the nesting site. Feeding usually took place within five minutes of the bird returning. Courtship feeding was observed as early as 40 days before the laying of the first egg but the incidence was extremely low until 20 days before egg laying. Thereafter the frequency of courtship feeding increased to reach a peak ten days before laying. After completion of the clutch there was a marked reduction in the frequency of courtship feeds. Mounting occurred at least 60 days before egg laying but started to become frequent only about 30 days before egg laying. It reached a peak six to eight days prior to laying then dropped sharply after completion of the clutch. The number of cloacal contacts per copulation did not change in relation to the date of laying but there was a trend suggesting that the female was less likely to end the mount as the date of laying approached than she had been previously. At the peak of courtship the female was fed on average every four hours. The amount of food received could represent a substantial proportion of her daily intake since she spent an average of only 18 % of the daylight hours away from the nest territory in the five days prior to laying. Some females were inadequately fed by the male and had to spend considerably more time foraging than did females which had been better nourished by their partners. The courtship feeding performance of the male appeared to affect pair-bond retention the following season. Females well fed by their mates retained partners but the female which was inadequately fed changed partner. A significantly higher incidence of mounting occurred after courtship feeding bouts that included regurgitation than after those that did not. Cloacal contact was 23 % more likely to occur during mounting when food was given than if food was not offered. It is suggested that courtship feeding is important for the female because it provides extra nutriment during egg formation, a time when the demand for food by the female is greatest, and as well plays a significant role in inducing successful copulations.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Zoology, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand; 2: Wildlife Service, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington, New Zealand


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