Family structure and variation in reproductive success in blackbirds

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In avian families, some offspring are rendered unequal by parental fiat. By imposing phenotypic handicaps (e.g., via asynchronous hatching) upon certain of their offspring and not others, parents structure the sibship into castes of advantaged “core” offspring and disadvantaged “marginal” offspring that results in an asymmetric sibling rivalry. Here, I show how this family structure scales up to population level reproductive consequences. In a 17-year study of red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus), I show that year-to-year variation in the number of surviving offspring is driven primarily by variation in the number of marginal offspring at hatching and their posthatching survival. Clutch size, core brood at hatching, and fledging varied little from year to year and had little direct effect on year-to-year variation in total brood size at fledging; conversely, variation in the size of the marginal brood at hatching and at fledging was much greater. Marginal but not core brood size at hatching rose with mean clutch size; in years where parents laid larger average clutches they did so by adding marginal progeny. The mean posthatching survival of marginal offspring was always lower than that of core offspring in a given year, and there was no overlap in the distributions. The highest mean survival of marginal offspring across years fell below the lowest mean survival of core offspring; broods were deeply structured. There was an overall female bias among fledglings, and the sex ratio varied across years, with a higher proportion of the smaller female nestlings in years of below average reproductive success. Such variation was especially pronounced in the marginal brood where a higher incidence of brood reduction allowed greater potential for sex-biased nestling mortality. In years of the highest average reproductive success, the sex ratio in the marginal brood approached equality, whereas in years of the lowest average reproductive success, more than two thirds of 8-day-old nestlings were female. Structuring the brood into core and marginal elements allowed parents to modulate both offspring number and sex under ecological uncertainty with direct consequences for population-level reproductive success. They produced fewer and less expensive fledglings in below average years and more and more expensive fledglings in above average years.

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