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Proc Biol Sci. 2005 Nov 22;272(1579):2423-8.

Winter resource wealth drives delayed dispersal and family-group living in western bluebirds.

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  • 1University of California, Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 3101 Valley Life Sciences Building, Berkeley, CA 94720-3160, USA.


Delayed dispersal, where offspring remain with parents beyond the usual period of dependence, is the typical route leading to formation of kin-based cooperative societies. The prevailing explanations for why offspring stay home are variation in resource wealth, in which offspring of wealthy parents benefit disproportionately by staying home, and nepotism, where the tendency for parents to be less aggressive and share food with offspring makes home a superior place to wait to breed. These hypotheses are not strict alternatives, as only wealthy parents have sufficient resources to share. In western bluebirds, Sialia mexicana, sons usually delay dispersal until after winter, gaining feeding advantages through maternal nepotism in a familial winter group. Experimentally reducing resource wealth (mistletoe) by half on winter territories caused sons to disperse in summer, even though their parents remained on the territory during the winter. Only 8% of sons remained with their parents on mistletoe-removal territories compared to 50% of sons on control territories (t(9,10)=3.33, p<0.005). This study is the first to demonstrate that experimentally reducing wealth of a natural food resource reduces delayed dispersal, facilitating nepotism and family-group living. The results clarify the roles of year-round residency, resource limitation and relative wealth outside the breeding season in facilitating the formation of kin-based cooperative societies.

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