Condition-dependent begging elicits increased parental investment in a wild bird population


The coevolution of parental supply and offspring demand has long been thought to involve offspring need driving begging and parental care, leaving other hypotheses underexplored. In a population of wild birds, we experimentally tested whether begging serves as a negatively condition-dependent signal of need or a positively condition-dependent signal of quality. Across multiple years, we supplemented nestling house wrens with food shortly after hatching and simultaneously manipulated corticosterone levels to simulate the hunger-induced increase in glucocorticoids thought to mediate begging. This allowed us to also test whether begging is simply a proximate signal of hunger. Days after supplementation ended, food-supplemented nestlings were in better condition than nonsupplemented nestlings and begged for food at an increased rate; their parents, in turn, increased provisioning to a greater extent than parents of nonsupplemented young, as begging positively predicted provisioning. Food-supplemented nestlings therefore attained above-average condition, which predicted their recruitment as breeding adults in the local population. Glucocorticoids increased begging in the short term, but this transient effect depended on satiety. Thus, glucocorticoids promoted begging as a proximate response to hunger, whereas the longer-term changes in nestling condition, begging, and food provisioning suggest that begging ultimately signals offspring quality to elicit increased investment, thereby enhancing offspring survival.

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American Naturalist