Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 31, Issue 2, pp 89–96

Female control of extra-pair fertilization in tree swallows

  • Jan T. Lifjeld
  • Raleigh J. Robertson

DOI: 10.1007/BF00166341

Cite this article as:
Lifjeld, J.T. & Robertson, R.J. Behav Ecol Sociobiol (1992) 31: 89. doi:10.1007/BF00166341


In a Canadian population of tree swallows, Tachycineta bicolor, DNA fingerprinting has previously shown that half of all broods contain many offspring resulting from extra-pair copulations (EPCs), whereas the other half contain only legitimate offspring. This bimodal pattern of extra-pair paternity might be due to variation in the effectiveness of male paternity guards, variation in female ability to resist EPCs, and/or variation in female pursuit of EPCs. Here we report experimental evidence for female control of copulations and fertilizations and the occurrence of two alternative copulation strategies among females in this population. Ten paired male tree swallows were removed on the day their mates laid the first egg. Replacement males took over the nestbox within 0.5–23 h and attempted to copulate with the widowed female. Assuming that eggs were fertilized approximately 24 h prior to laying, the first two eggs were fertilized before the male was removed, while the third and subsequent eggs could potentially be fertilized by the replacement male. Fingerprinting revealed that the first two eggs were sired by the resident males in five nests and by extra-pair males in the remaining five nests. The widows that had been faithful to their initially chosen mate rejected copulation attempts by the replacement male until most of the eggs had been laid. Consequently, nearly all eggs laid by these females were sired by the original male. The widows that had been unfaithful prior to male removal copulated sooner with the replacement male than females that were faithful to their mate. However, these replacement males also had a very low fertilization success; most eggs were sired by males that were not associated with the nest. This is consistent with the situation in non-experimental nests where unfaithful females copulate with their mate at the same rate as faithful females, yet unfaithful females have a majority of offspring sired by extra-pair males. We conclude that fertilization patterns to a large extent are determined by the female through active selection and rejection of copulation partners, though our results also allow some speculation that females have control over sperm competition. Female copulation tactics are probably determined some currently unknown fitness benefits of having the offspring sired by particular males.

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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 1992

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jan T. Lifjeld
    • 1
  • Raleigh J. Robertson
  1. 1.Department of BiologyQueen's UniversityKingston, OntarioCanada
  2. 2.Zoological MuseumUniversity of OsloOsloNorway

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