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Gen Comp Endocrinol. 2009 Jul;162(3):313-8. doi: 10.1016/j.ygcen.2009.04.008. Epub 2009 Apr 14.

Adrenocortical responses to offspring-directed threats in two open-nesting birds.

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  • 1Department of Biology, 163 Packard Avenue, Tufts University, Medford, MA 02155-5818, USA.


Dependent young are often easy targets for predators, so for many parent vertebrates, responding to offspring-directed threats is a fundamental part of reproduction. We tested the parental adrenocortical response of the endangered black-capped vireo (Vireo atricapilla) and the common white-eyed vireo (V. griseus) to acute and chronic threats to their offspring. Like many open-nesting birds, our study species experience high offspring mortality. Parents responded behaviorally to a predator decoy or human 1-2m from their nests, but, in contrast to similar studies of cavity-nesting birds, neither these acute threats nor chronic offspring-directed threats altered plasma corticosterone concentrations of parents. Although parents in this study showed no corticosterone response to offspring-directed threats, they always increased corticosterone concentrations in response to capture. To explain these results, we propose that parents perceive their risk of nest-associated death differently depending on nest type, with cavity-nesting adults perceiving greater risk to themselves than open-nesters that can readily detect and escape from offspring-directed threats. Our results agree with previous studies suggesting that the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, a major physiological mechanism for coping with threats to survival, probably plays no role in coping with threats to offspring when risks to parents and offspring are not correlated. We extend that paradigm by demonstrating that nest style may influence how adults perceive the correlation between offspring-directed and self-directed threats.

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