, Volume 35, Issue 4, pp 273-281

Extra-pair paternity in tree swallows: why do females mate with more than one male?

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Recent studies of monogamous tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) suggest that females may receive some type of genetic benefit from extra-pair fertilizations. In this study we attempted to determine what type of genetic benefits might be gained by females. We compared numerous morphological and behavioral traits (Table 1) of every male nesting on one grid of nest-boxes (n = 23) to determine what male traits were correlated with male success at gaining extra-pair fertilizations. DNA fingerprinting revealed an increase in the level of extra-pair paternity from the previous year (50% of broods contained extra-pair young in 1990 vs. 87% of broods in 1991), but no significant correlates of paternity. We found six extra-pair fathers at seven nests (20 nests had extra-pair young). The traits of these extra-pair males did not differ from those of the males they cuckolded. We discuss several reasons for this lack of difference, but argue that our results are not inconsistent with females choosing extra-pair males to enhance the genotypic quality of their offspring. Despite a complete search of the nest-box grid for extra-pair fathers, we were able to explain the paternity of just 21% (13/63) of all extra-pair young. This suggests that extra-pair fathers were either residents off our study grid or non-territorial floaters. Tree swallows are quite mobile and spend only part of the day at their nest prior to laying. In addition, we rarely see swallows visiting other grids of nest-boxes. Therefore, we suggest that most extra-pair copulations occur at some unknown location, possibly at a feeding or roosting area where females may be able to choose from many more potential extra-pair fathers than at their nest-site.