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Opportunity is not everything: genetic monogamy and limited brood parasitism in a colonial woodpecker


Avian social and genetic mating systems are influenced by parental care roles as well as by reproductive opportunities. Alternative reproductive tactics, including conspecific brood parasitism and extra-pair mating, are predicted to be most common when females have access to potential host nests and when adults have access to potential mating partners, respectively. We tested these predictions in the facultatively colonial Hispaniolan woodpecker (Melanerpes striatus), a socially monogamous species with biparental care. Up to 12 pairs may nest concurrently in the same tree or, less frequently, two adjacent trees, potentially facilitating both conspecific brood parasitism and extra-pair mating. Contrary to our predictions, genotyping with single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) revealed no evidence of extra-pair paternity in either solitary or colonial nests: all 307 nestlings in 101 broods were matched to their social parents. Two instances of apparent conspecific brood parasitism were detected via changes in clutch size, but these could not be confirmed genetically since none of the apparently parasitic eggs survived to hatching. Therefore, if conspecific brood parasitism did occur, it was not a successful route to reproduction: parents fledged only their genetic offspring. These results suggest that reproductive opportunities alone are insufficient to favor alternative reproductive tactics, and that genetic monogamy can persist despite locally high densities of breeding pairs. Other life-history traits, including high levels of nest attendance and male parental care, may constrain parasitism and extra-pair mating in this long-lived tropical species.

Significance statement

High breeding density, a feature of colonial nesting, should increase opportunities for infidelity and conspecific brood parasitism because of the close proximity of potential extra-pair mates and parasitic females. Yet, we found that Hispaniolan woodpeckers, which nest both solitarily and colonially (two or more pairs in the same tree) in the same population, were genetically monogamous and lacked successful brood parasitism. Colonial nesting is exceptionally rare in the woodpecker family, which is also characterized by high investment in male parental care, including nocturnal incubation. The essential role of paternal care for successful reproduction in the Hispaniolan woodpecker might have selected against extra-pair mating and conspecific brood parasitism despite the apparent ample opportunities provided by nesting so close to others.

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The following people provided invaluable assistance in the field: M. Angelucci, H. Boyle, C. Cerrilla, W. Coleman, A. Diaz, L. Emerson, N. Gilbert, A. Janik, K. Kauffman, T. Lacerda, A. Lascher-Posner, M. Larrieu, K. Larsen, C. Mathers-Winn, K. Nelsen, A. Occhialini, S. Schubert, H. Stapleton, M. Walters, A. Waterman-Snow, P. Werner, and A. Wichtendahl. JBL is greatly indebted to B.G. Butcher for assistance with genetic work, and B.G. Butcher, L. Campagna, and D. Thrasher for assistance with bioinformatics. W.D. Koenig, J.L. Dickinson, P.W. Sherman, M.S. Webster, H.K. Reeve, and I.J. Lovette provided feedback on the project and various drafts of the manuscript. We also thank A. Pilastro, J.M. Eadie, and an anonymous reviewer for constructive comments on the manuscript. We also thank R. Ortíz, J. Goetz, and various members of the Muséo Nacioal de Historía Natural en Santo Domingo for assistance with local permitting.


Financial support was provided by the American Ornithological Society Wetmore Award, Cornell Lab of Ornithology Athena Fund, Department of Neurobiology Animal Behavior Research Grant, Society for the Study of Evolution Rosemary Grant Award, Society for Comparative & Integrative Biology Grant-in-aid of Research, and Sigma Xi Grant in Aid of Research. JBL was also supported by the following fellowships during fieldwork: Charles Walcott Graduate Fellowship, Linda and Samuel Graduate Student Fellowship, Eleanore Stuart Graduate Fellowship, Andrew’78 and Margaret Paul Graduate Fellowship, Kramer Graduate Fellowship, Halberstadt Graduate Fellowship, Anne Marie Brown Summer Graduate Fellowship, and Lab of Ornithology Summer Graduate Fellowship.

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Correspondence to Joshua B. LaPergola.

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All research activities described here were approved by the Dominican Republic’s Ministerio de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales and conducted in accordance with IACUC protocol 2008–0185 at Cornell University.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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The genotype data and parent and offspring ID data are available at

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Communicated by A. Pilastro

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LaPergola, J.B., Riehl, C. Opportunity is not everything: genetic monogamy and limited brood parasitism in a colonial woodpecker. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 76, 72 (2022).

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  • Alternative reproductive tactics
  • Brood parasitism
  • Extra-pair paternity
  • Melanerpes
  • Parentage
  • Woodpeckers