Seasonal decline in provisioning effort and nestling mass of Blue Tits Cyanistes caeruleus: experimental support for the parent quality hypothesis
A common feature of many birds breeding in seasonal environments is that fitness-related parameters such as nestling mass or survival decline as the breeding season progresses. Consequently, there is a tendency for early breeders to have better reproductive performance than individuals breeding later in the season. This variation could be caused by factors associated with the date of laying, such as changing environmental conditions (date hypothesis), or by differences in parental quality between early and late breeders (parent quality hypothesis). To evaluate the relative importance of both hypotheses, we manipulated hatch dates of Blue Tits Cyanistes caeruleus by exchanging clutches with different incubation stages and assessed the impact on nestling mass, nestling diet and provisioning rates. Mean nestling mass declined significantly over the season. This was the combined result of differences in parental quality, which dominated in the early part of the season, and the influence of hatching date (date effect per se), which prevailed later in the season. Nestling diet composition was apparently uninfluenced by the manipulation, suggesting that deteriorating food supplies are the primary reason for the seasonal variation in the nestling diet. Counter to the date hypothesis, delayed parents did not feed their young less than control pairs did, but in fact exhibited higher provisioning rates. Our results suggest that in this population, parental quality seems to constrain post-hatching reproductive performance and such intrinsic limitations may help to explain why certain individuals breed later.
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