Posthatching Parental Care and Offspring Growth Vary with Maternal Corticosterone Level in a Wild Bird Population


Corticosterone is the primary metabolic steroid in birds and is vital for maintaining homeostasis. However, the relationship between baseline corticosterone and reproduction is unclear, and we lack an understanding of how differences in baseline corticosterone at one stage of the breeding cycle influence reproductive effort at later stages. In a wild population of house wrens, we quantified the concentration of corticosterone in yolks of freshly laid eggs as an integrated measure of maternal physiology and related this to a behavioral measure of stress reactivity made during the nestling period, namely, the latency with which females resumed parental activities following a standardized disturbance at their nest (setting up a camera to record provisioning). Females that recently produced eggs containing higher corticosterone concentrations, which were significantly repeatable within females, took longer to resume activity related to parental care (i.e., feeding and brooding young) following the disturbance. Moreover, a female's latency to resume parental activities negatively predicted her provisioning of nestlings with food and the condition of these young at fledging but did not predict the number fledged. We cross-fostered offspring prior to hatching so these effects on maternal behavior are independent of any prenatal maternal effects on nestlings via the egg. These results are consistent with earlier findings, suggesting that females with higher baseline corticosterone during egg laying or early incubation tend to prioritize self-maintenance over reproduction compared with females with lower baseline corticosterone and suggest that a female's latency to return to her nest and resume parental care following a disturbance might represent a simple, functional measure of maternal stress reactivity.

Publication Title

Physiological and biochemical zoology : PBZ