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Vegetation height and egg coloration differentially affect predation rate and overheating risk: an experimental test mimicking a ground-nesting bird

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Avian eggs need to be laid in protected environments to develop and survive. Nest predation is known as the main cause of breeding failure for many birds, but nest microclimate conditions are also important for embryo development. These two selective pressures are particularly marked in ground-nesting birds. Vegetation height has been shown to be a critical factor for nest-site selection in ground-nesting birds because it can counteract predation and overheating simultaneously. It is therefore difficult to disentangle the respective influences of these risks on selection of a particular nest vegetation height. To develop a conceptual framework for understanding and predicting the relative effects of vegetation on predation and nest microclimate during a breeding season, we used vegetation height to manipulate differentially these two risks. We therefore exposed artificial nests to a wide range of vegetation heights, replicated the experimental tests during spring, and manipulated egg color to estimate predation risk. We confirmed that tall vegetation is relevant to protect unattended eggs against both risks. Whereas predation risk is stable for a given vegetation height, overheating risk presents inter- and intra-seasonal variations. Therefore, over a breeding season, for a given vegetation height, the respective strengths of the two risks are unbalanced and depends on egg coloration. The breeding strategy of ground-nesting birds thus should have been shaped by both selective pressures, but the ultimate choice may depend on the species-specific laying dates and alternative behavioral strategies for protecting the clutch. This study provides new perspectives to investigate avian parental behaviour.
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Keywords: Busard cendré; Circus pygargus; Circus pygargus; Montagu’s Harrier; camouflage du nid; egg overheating; egg predation; hauteur de vegetation; insolation des œufs; nest concealment; predation des œufs; vegetation height

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2012-06-10

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  • Published since 1929, this monthly journal reports on primary research contributed by respected international scientists in the broad field of zoology, including behaviour, biochemistry and physiology, developmental biology, ecology, genetics, morphology and ultrastructure, parasitology and pathology, and systematics and evolution. It also invites experts to submit review articles on topics of current interest.
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