, Volume 144, Issue 3, pp 499-507
Date: 13 Apr 2005

The importance of microclimate variation in determining size, growth and survival of avian offspring: experimental evidence from a cavity nesting passerine

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Abstract

Organisms are expected to balance energy allocation in such a way that fitness is maximized. While much research has focussed on allocation strategies of reproducing parents, in particular birds, relatively little attention has been paid to how nestlings allocate energy while in the nest. Nestling birds are faced with a trade-off between devoting energy to growth or to thermoregulation, and in altricial species it is likely that the thermal environment of the nest site influences the nature of this trade-off. Here, we experimentally investigate how altering the microclimate of nests affects the growth, size and survival, as well as cell-mediated immune (CMI) response, of nestling tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) in a temperate environment. We place air-activated heating pads in nests of swallows when young were between 4 days and 16 days of age, and compared performance of offspring to control nests. Our manipulation raised temperatures of heated nests by approximately 5°C compared to control nests. Offspring in heated nests had enhanced survival while in the nest, and we also found that they were heavier and had longer ninth primary feathers at 16 days of age. In addition, heating nest boxes resulted in significantly faster growth of primaries, and there was a trend for growth rates of mass to also be higher in heated nests. There were no significant differences between heated and control nests in growth rate or size of tarsus at age 16 days, and we speculate that this lack of response to elevated nest temperatures may be due to growth of skeletal structures being limited by other factors such as calcium availability. We also found no difference between heated and control nests in CMI response. Nonetheless, our results show overall that increasing temperatures of nests has significant benefits that enhance the fitness of offspring. As provisioning rates to offspring did not differ between heated and control nests, we suspect that the beneficial effects of heating were not the consequence of changes in parental behaviour. Our results provide insight into factors, other than food supply, that have important consequences in determining reproductive success of birds breeding in temperate environments.

Communicated by Mark Chappell