Environmental cues and dietary antioxidants affect breeding behavior and testosterone of male European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris)

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Abstract

Environmental cues, such as photoperiod, regulate the timing of major life-history events like breeding through direct neuroendocrine control. Less known is how supplementary environmental cues (e.g., nest sites, food availability) interact to influence key hormones and behaviors involved in reproduction, specifically in migratory species with gonadal recrudescence largely occurring at breeding sites. We investigated the behavioral and physiological responses of male European starlings to the sequential addition of nest boxes and nesting material, green herbs, and female conspecifics and how these responses depend on the availability of certain antioxidants (anthocyanins) in the diet. As expected, cloacal protuberance volume and plasma testosterone of males generally increased with photoperiod. More notably, testosterone levels peaked in males fed the high antioxidant diet when both nest box and herbal cues were present, while males fed the low antioxidant diet showed no or only a muted testosterone response to the sequential addition of these environmental cues; thus our results are in agreement with the oxidation handicap hypothesis. Males fed the high antioxidant diet maintained a constant frequency of breeding behaviors over time, whereas those fed the low antioxidant diet decreased breeding behaviors as environmental cues were sequentially added. Overall, sequential addition of the environmental cues modulated physiological and behavioral measures of reproductive condition, and dietary antioxidants were shown to be a key factor in affecting the degree of response to each of these cues. Our results highlight the importance of supplementary environmental cues and key resources such as dietary antioxidants in enhancing breeding condition of males, which conceivably aid in attraction of high quality females and reproductive success.

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