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Evolution. 2000 Apr;54(2):670-85.

Evolution of passerine incubation behavior: influence of food, temperature, and nest predation.

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  • 1Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, University of Montana, Missoula 59812, USA.,


Incubation behavior is one component of reproductive effort and thus influences the evolution of life-history strategies. We examined the relative importance of body mass, frequency of mate feeding, food, nest predation, and ambient temperature to explain interspecific variation in incubation behavior (nest attentiveness, on- and off-bout durations, and nest trips per hour) using comparative analyses for North American passerines in which only females incubate. Body mass and frequency of mate feeding explained little variation in incubation behavior. We were also unable to detect any influence of foot; diet and foraging strategy explained little interspecific variation in incubation behavior. However, the typical temperature encountered during reproduction explained significant variation in incubation behavior: Species breeding in colder environments take shorter bouts off the nest, which prevents eggs from cooling to temperatures below the physiological zero temperature. These species must compensate for shorter off-bouts by taking more of them (thus shorter on-bouts) to obtain needed energy for incubation. Nest predation also explains significant variation in incubation behavior among passerines: Species that endure high nest predation have evolved an incubation strategy (long on- and off-bouts) that minimizes activity that could attract predators. Nest substrate explained additional variation in incubation behavior (cavity-nesting birds have shorter on-bouts and make more frequent nest trips), presumably because nest predation and/or temperature varies among nest substrates. Thus, nest predation can influence reproductive effort in a way previously not demonstrated--by placing a constraint on parental activity at the nest. Incubating birds face an ecological cost associated with reproductive effort (predation of entire brood) that should be considered in future attempts to explain avian life-history evolution.

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