Why do grebes cover their nests? Laboratory and field tests of two alternative hypotheses
Egg predation is a common feature influencing the reproductive success of open nesting birds. Evolutionary pressure therefore favours building cryptic, inconspicuous nests. However, these antipredatory pressures may be in conflict with thermoregulatory constraints, which select for dry nest material maintaining optimum temperature inside a nest cup during the absence of incubating parents. Here we examined possible trade-offs between nest crypsis and thermoregulation in Little Grebes (Tachybaptus ruficollis), which lay their eggs in floating nests built from wet plant material. As this species regularly covers its eggs with nest material, we experimentally examined (1) the rates of egg predation on covered and uncovered artificial nests and (2) possible thermoregulatory costs from nest covering by comparing temperature and relative humidity changes inside the nest cup. Results revealed that covering clutches is beneficial in terms of deterring predators, because uncovered eggs were more vulnerable to predation. Moreover, covering clutches also had thermoregulatory benefits because the mean temperature and relative humidity inside nest cups covered by dry or wet materials were significantly higher for covered compared to uncovered treatments. Covering clutches in Little Grebes therefore does not pose thermoregulatory costs.