, Volume 9, Issue 1, pp 59-63

Social hierarchy among siblings in broods of the oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus

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On Skokholm Island, Wales, the young of the Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus) are fully precocial, yet are totally dependent on parents for food. Though all young (commonly three) usually hatch within one day, small hatching intervals do exist, and first-hatched nestlings are usually slightly heavier at hatching than those hatched later. Firsthatched young and/or initially heavier young become socially dominant over their siblings; a stable, linear, non-aggressive social hierarchy among siblings develops, which determines the partition of food among them and results in unequal distribution when food is scarce. Food shortage impairs the growth rate of subordinate young. They are rather hungry and restless and consequently predation on them is higher than on dominant young.

It is proposed that Oystercatchers achieve effective brood-reduction by the parents' control of differential egg weight, by the eggs' hatching order, and by the young's acceptance of a non-aggressive social hierarchy. The latter is an adaptation associated with the unusual phenomenon of fully precocial wader young being exclusively fed by parents.