Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 22, Issue 4, pp 239-249

First online:

The relationship between ecology and the incidence of cooperative breeding in Australian birds

  • Hugh A. FordAffiliated withDepartment of Zoology, University of New England
  • , Harry BellAffiliated withDepartment of Zoology, University of New England
  • , Ray NiasAffiliated withDepartment of Zoology, University of New England
  • , Richard NoskeAffiliated withDepartment of Zoology, University of New England

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Australia has many cooperatively breeding species of birds. These tend to occur in eucalypt and semi-arid woodlands rather than in rainforests or deserts. They tend to be insectivores that pursue rather than sit and wait for their prey, and tend to forage on the ground rather than above it. We propose that environments where resources do not show marked seasonal fluctuations are those in which cooperative breeding is most likely to evolve. Under these conditions birds might experience difficulty acquiring the extra food necessary to breed, especially if inexperienced. When adult survival was high, young and inexperienced birds could delay breeding. Unpredictable environments may also favor cooperative breeding, but our data do not strongly support this. Groupliving would be favored further if young birds are particularly vulnerable to predators when alone. They should therefore remain in the family group and delay their dispersal unitl a suitable breeding vacancy becomes available. These hypotheses are not mutually exclusive, but are complementary. Both may be required to ensure that at least some year-old birds do not breed and also do not disperse. We believe that they give rise to predictions, which can be tested in future field studies.