Parental favoritism in a wild bird population


In most taxa with altricial young, offspring solicit food from their parents using a combination of visual and acoustic stimuli, but exactly what these young are communicating, and how selection shapes parental responses, remains unresolved. Theory posits that parents’ interpretation and response to begging should vary with the likelihood of a return on their investment. We tested this in a wild population of prothonotary warblers (Protonotaria citrea), predicting that parents bias food non-randomly toward certain individuals within their broods depending on both the size and number of offspring. We observed parent–offspring interactions and detected strong dependence between brood size and nestling size in shaping parental responses to begging. Larger siblings were less likely to solicit food during feeding events than their smaller siblings, but they received a disproportionate share from parents in nests containing fewer-than-average young, whereas the smaller-than-average nestlings were disproportionately fed in broods containing a greater-than-average number of young. These findings suggest that parents respond to begging signals according to multiple social cues, favoring the stronger siblings with greater survival prospects when few copies of their genes are present, but overtly favoring runts to ensure whole-brood survival when capable of fledging more young. Future experimental studies may shed light on the contributions of parental decision-making and memory, how young nestlings learn in parent–offspring communication systems, and the adaptive significance of these behaviors.

Publication Title

Animal Cognition