Experimental manipulation of incubation period reveals no apparent costs of incubation in house wrens


Fitness costs of incubation ensue whenever the trade-off between incubation and foraging leads to suboptimal incubation or decreased parental body condition. We examined the costs of incubation in a wild population of house wrens, Troglodytes aedon, by experimentally extending or decreasing the incubation period by cross-fostering eggs between nests at different stages of incubation (eggs from control nests were cross-fostered at the same stage of incubation). We determined whether parents or offspring bear the costs of incubation by measuring effects on females and offspring within the same breeding season during which the manipulation occurred, but also by evaluating potential trade-offs between current and future reproduction by monitoring return rates of experimental females and recruitment rates of offspring in subsequent breeding seasons. There was no difference in hatching or fledging success across treatments. There was also no effect of incubation duration on female size-corrected mass, and females from different treatments were equally likely to produce a second brood. Nestlings produced by control and experimental females did not differ in body mass, tarsus length or residual mass. Neither return rates of females, nor the number of offspring recruited, differed across treatments. We conclude, therefore, that although prolonged incubation entails increased energy expenditures, females are able to offset these losses while foraging, thereby mitigating the costs of incubation. This resiliency is more likely to be seen in income breeders, such as house wrens, that retain some ability to recoup energy expended in incubation, than in capital breeders that are constrained by stored energy reserves.

Publication Title

Animal Behaviour