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Food supply and individual quality influence seabird energy expenditure and reproductive success


Breeding animals trade off maximizing energy output to increase their number of offspring with conserving energy to ensure their own survival, leading to an energetic ceiling influenced by external, environmental factors or by internal, physiological factors. We examined whether internal or external factors limited energy expenditure by supplementally feeding breeding black-legged kittiwakes varying in individual quality, based on earlier work that defined late breeders as low-quality and early breeders as high-quality individuals. We tested whether energy expenditure increased when food availability decreased in both low- and high-quality birds; we predicted this would only occur in high-quality individuals capable of sustaining high levels of energy expenditure. Here, we find that food-supplemented birds expended less energy than control birds because they spent more time at the colony. However, foraging trips of food-supplemented birds were only slightly shorter than control birds, implying that food-supplemented birds were limited by food availability at sea similarly to control birds. Late breeders expended less energy, suggesting that low-quality individuals may not intake the energy necessary for sustaining high-energy output. Food-supplemented birds had more offspring than control birds, but offspring number did not influence energy expenditure, supporting the idea that the birds reached an energy ceiling. Males and lighter birds expended more energy, possibly compensating for relatively higher energy intake. Chick-rearing birds were working near their maximum, with highest levels of expenditure for early-laying (high-quality) individuals foraging at sea. Due to fluctuating marine environments, kittiwakes may be forced to change their foraging behaviors to maintain the balance between reproduction and survival.

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Data and statistical code were uploaded as supplementary materials for review during the initial submission. If accepted, these will be published as supplementary materials.


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We would like to acknowledge the following individuals for their assistance with feeding and monitoring kittiwakes during this study: Elsa Kern-Lovick, Joshua Cunningham, Mason Stothart, Angelika Aleksandrova Aleksieva, Brianna Williams, Anne Mouillier, Kristen Lalla, Sydney Collins, Alyssa Piauwasdy, Luis Ramos, Alice Sun, and Hannes Schraft. All methods were approved by the necessary academic institutions and research was permitted by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and Alaska Department of Fish and Game.


This work was funded by the Natural Science Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and Northern Scientific Training Program (NSTP).

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Authors and Affiliations



SRK-R, SW, JA, SAH, KHE, and SJ conceived and designed the experiments. SRK-R, SW, and JA conceived and developed the methodology. The formal analysis was conducted by SRK-R, SW, and JA while SRK-R, SW, SAH, and KHE curated the data. The investigation was conducted by SRK-R and SW. The funding acquisition was done by SRK-R, SAH, KHE, and SJ. The original draft was written by SRK-R, SW, and JA while all authors contributed to reviewing and editing the manuscript. The resources for this study were provided by SAH, KHE, and SJ. Lastly, KHE and SJ provided supervision.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Shirel R. Kahane-Rapport.

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The authors declare that they have no known competing financial interests or personal relationships that could have appeared to influence the work reported in this paper.

Ethics approval

All experiments were conducted in adherence with animal care protocols from the institutional affiliates in this study: University of Guelph (University of Guelph Animal Care Committee #3317) and McGill University (Animal Use Protocol #7599).

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Not applicable.

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Not applicable.

Additional information

Communicated by Thomas Koert Lameris.

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Kahane-Rapport, S.R., Whelan, S., Ammendolia, J. et al. Food supply and individual quality influence seabird energy expenditure and reproductive success. Oecologia 199, 367–376 (2022).

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  • Seabird
  • Foraging behavior
  • Daily energy expenditure
  • Reproductive success
  • Climate change