, Volume 102, Issue 2, pp 180–188 | Cite as

Ecological and life-history correlates of cooperative breeding in South African birds

  • M. A. Du Plessis
  • W. R. Siegfried
  • A. J. Armstrong
Original Paper


Our analyses of the incidence of cooperative breeding among South African birds differ from previous studies performed elsewhere in two respects. First, we distinguish between “obligate” (i.e. regular) and “facultative” (i.e. opportunistic) cooperative breeding species (OCS and FCS). Second, we have restricted our analyses to 217 South African bird species considered to be sufficiently well-studied in terms of their basic biology and life-history characteristics. This was done in order to control for the well-known bias against the often poorly-studied avifaunas of extreme environments such as rainforests and deserts. The results of our analysis do not accord fully with those of Australian birds by Ford et al. (1988). Cooperative breeding in South Africa is associated with seasonal environments, whereas in Australia the opposite is the case. Analyses of ecological factors that promote cooperative breeding among South African birds suggest that the evolutionary pathway to obligate and facultative breeding may be fundamentally different. First, OCS live mainly in savanna habitats that have predictable seasonal peaks in food availability, yet where the baseline level of food availability during the nonbreeding season is sufficient to support permanent residence by groups. Small to medium-sized birds of the African savannas are particularly vulnerable to avian predators, and foraging and roosting in permanent groups may enhance their survival. We propose that the benefits of obligate cooperative breeding are derived chiefly from survival of individuals away from the nest (i.e. during the nonbreeding season). Secondly, FCS live largely in unpredictable, seasonal steppe habitats. Under these conditions it may be impossible for birds to maintain permanent group territories, and variation in the tendency to breed cooperatively may depend largely on the opportunistic assessment of environmental conditions. We therefore suggest that birds (i.e. FCS) will opt to breed cooperatively only when conditions are unfavourable for independent breeding, and that the benefits thus accrued are chiefly related to reproduction.

Key words

Birds Cooperative breeding Group living Life history South Africa 


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 1995

Authors and Affiliations

  • M. A. Du Plessis
    • 1
  • W. R. Siegfried
    • 1
  • A. J. Armstrong
    • 2
  1. 1.Fritz Patrick Institute of African OrnithologyUniversity of Cape TownRondeboschSouth Africa
  2. 2.Department of Nature Conservation, Forestry FacultyUniversity of StellenboschStellenboschSouth Africa

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