Nestlings' carotenoid feather ornament affects parental allocation strategy and reduces maternal survival

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In some birds, feather ornaments are expressed in nestlings well before sexual maturation, possibly in response to parental favouritism towards high-quality offspring. In species with synchronous hatching, in which nestling ornaments may vary more among than within broods, parents may use this information to adjust their parental allocation to the current brood accordingly. We tested this hypothesis in the rock sparrow, in which a sexually selected yellow feather ornament is also expressed in nestlings. We experimentally enlarged nestlings' breast patch in a group of broods and sham-manipulated another group of control broods. Nestlings with enlarged ornament were fed more frequently and defended more actively from a dummy predator than their control counterparts. Mothers from the enlarged group were more likely to lay a second clutch and showed a reduced survival to the next breeding season. These results provide one of the first evidences of differential parental allocation among different broods based directly on nestlings' ornamentation, and the first, to our knowledge, to show a reduction in maternal survival.

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