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Penduline tit
Penduline tits have some of the most intense parental conflict among birds. Both males and females race for new mates, and en route abandon about 30% of clutches. Photo: Csaba Daroczi

Internal News - 13 December 2007

Birds with precocious chicks more likely to trade parenting for new mates

Birds that have precocious chicks are more likely to desert their young and remate when the opportunity presents itself, says a study of two hundred species of birds.

The findings are part of a study by Dr Valérie Olson and Professor Tamas Székely, from the University of Bath, and colleagues from Sheffield and Hungary.

The team analysed a database of birds, looking for links between the amount of parental care provided by each sex and the percentage of males and females that have more than one mate.

They found that the amount of care the young required played an important role in determining the levels of parental conflict among species of birds.

“Taken together, the sexes appear to play the same strategies: if their young need little care, then both males and females respond to enhanced mating opportunities,” said Dr Olson.

Results show that on average, male and female birds do not cut a fair deal on parenting responsibilities. As one sex provides more and more for the family, the other tends to withdraw from the care of the young. Not surprisingly, the worst provider often sought additional mates.

However, the link between reduced parental care and increased matings only occurs in species where chicks are highly developed at hatching. In species where the young require a high level of commitment from both parents in order to survive, differences in care are not related to additional matings.

Provision of parental care is a source of conflict in bird species, as males and females try to enhance further mating opportunities. This ‘sexual conflict’ is a common feature in the animal kingdom and has a major impact on the evolution of the behaviour of birds.