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Male Feeding of Nestlings in the Facultatively Polygynous European Starling: Allocation Patterns and Effect On Female Reproductive Success

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Parental investment by males is less common among birds with polygynous mating systems than in monogamous species. Here, we examined the contribution of males in feeding nestlings in the facultatively polygynous European starling, Sturnus vulgaris. 1. In nestbox colonies around Antwerp, Belgium, males and females within monogamous pairs divided the feeding duties about equally, with a slight bias towards the female, and responded similarly to changes in brood size and age of nestlings. 2. The proportion of primary females receiving male assistance in feeding nestlings was significantly smaller than the proportion of monogamous females during each of the three nestling age stages (early, mid and late) we considered. In most primary broods, the strong decrease in male assistance was not due to the male directing part of his feeding effort toward the brood of the secondary female, but was due to the fact that the male's investment in feeding primary nestlings was negatively affected by his polygynous behaviour. As prospecting females were present after hatching of the primary broods (as contrasted to other studied starling populations), most males spent time trying to attract and courting additional females instead of giving parental care to the primary brood. This suggests that males trade off the attraction of additional females against giving parental care to an existing brood. The proportion of secondary females receiving male assistance in feeding was significantly smaller than the proportion of monogamous females during the early- and mid nestling stages. Overall, secondary females received less male assistance than primary females. The amount of male help to primary and secondary broods was not related to the hatching interval between the primary and secondary brood. 3. Primary females did not suffer reduced breeding success compared to monogamous females. In secondary broods, nestling mortality (partial brood loss) was significantly higher than in both primary and monogamous broods, while average nestling weights were significantly lower. These results suggest that secondary females, as contrasted to primary females, are not able to compensate fully for the reduction in male assistance. 4. During the mid-nestling stage, when nestlings grow most rapidly, but not during the early- and late-nestling stages, polygynously mated females feeding young without male assistance significantly increased their per-caput feeding rate compared with aided polygynous females and monogamous females, and made as many feeding visits as did polygynous pairs in which the male assisted, and as monogamous pairs. The higher nestling mortality rates in polygynous broods without male help during the early and mid-nestling stages suggest that unaided females cannot compensate fully (in terms of quantity or quality of food delivered), that male starlings can improve female fledging success by assisting in feeding nestlings, and that the reduced reproductive success of secondary females is directly linked to the strongly reduced male assistance in feeding.

Affiliations: 1: (University of Antwerp, U.I.A. Universiteitsplein 1, B-2610 Wilrijk, Belgium


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