Journal of Ornithology

, Volume 148, Supplement 2, pp 241–246 | Cite as

Parent–offspring conflict in avian families

  • R. M. KilnerEmail author
  • H. Drummond


Squabbles and squawks are a common feature of avian family life, so it is no wonder that birds are model species for the study of parent–offspring conflict. But how much do these behaviours really tell us about the evolutionary conflicts of interest between parents and their young? Here, we provide a brief review that is aimed primarily at ornithologists not already familiar with this area of research.


Begging Intrafamilial conflict Siblicide Sibling rivalry 



We thank Kate Lessells for encouraging us to organise a symposium at the IOC, the other participants (Lars Hillstrom, Petra Quillfeldt and Ruedi Nager) for their interesting contributions, Susan Hannon for her flexibility in programming the symposium, and Franz Bairlein and the other members of the IOC Organizing Committee for a stimulating and enjoyable meeting in Hamburg. We are very grateful to Martin Fowlie for his comments on the manuscript. R.M.K. was supported by a Royal Society University Research Fellowship and H.D. by an UNAM PAPIIT scholarship.


  1. Alexander RD (1974) The evolution of social behavior. Annu Rev Ecol Syst 5:325–383CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Anderson DJ (1995) The role of parents in siblicidal brood reduction of two booby species. Auk 112:860–869Google Scholar
  3. Brown LH, Urban EK (1969) The breeding biology of the great white pelican Pelecanus onocrotalus roseus at lake Shala, Ethiopia. Ibis 111:199–237CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Buchanan KL, Catchpole CK (1997) Female choice in the sedge warbler, Acrocephalus schoenobaenus: multiple cues from song and territory. Proc R Soc Lond B 264:521–526CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Burke VEM, Brown LH (1970) Observations on the breeding of the pink-backed pelican. Ibis 112:499–512CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Cash KJ, Evans RM (1986) Brood reduction in the American white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos). Behav Ecol Sociobiol 18:413–418CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Chapman FM (1908) Camps and cruises of an ornithologist. Appleton, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  8. Clotfelter ED, Schubert KA, Nolan V, Ketterson ED (2003) Mouth color signals thermal state of nestling dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis). Ethology 109:171–182CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Din NA, Eltringham SK (1974) Breeding of the pink-backed pelican Pelecanus rufescens in Rwenzori National Park, Uganda, with notes on a colony of marabou storks Leptoptilus crumeniferus. Ibis 116:477–493CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Dorward DF (1962) The comparative biology of the white booby and the brown booby Sula spp. at ascension. Ibis 103: 174–200CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Drummond H (2001) A revaluation of the role of food in broodmate aggression. Anim Behav 61:517–526CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Drummond H (2002) Begging versus aggression in avian broodmate competition. In: Wright J, Leonard ML (eds) The evolution of begging: competition, cooperation and communication. Kluwer, DordrechtGoogle Scholar
  13. Drummond H (2006) Dominance in vertebrate broods and litters. Q Rev Biol 81:3–32PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Drummond H, Rodríguez C, Vallarino A, Valderrábano C, Rogel G, Tobón E (2003) Desperado siblings: uncontrollably aggressive junior chicks. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 53:287–296Google Scholar
  15. Evans RM (1994) Cold-induced calling and shivering in young American white pelicans: honest signalling of offspring need for warmth in a functionally integrated thermoregulatory system. Behaviour 129:13–34CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Evans RM, Weibe MO, Lee SC, Bugden SC 1995 Embryonic and parental preferences for incubation temperature in herring gulls: implications for parent–offspring conflict. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 36:17–23CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Forbes LS (1993) Avian brood reduction and parent–offspring “conflict”. Am Nat 142:82–117CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  18. Forbes S, Thornton S, Glassey B, Buckley NJ (1997) Why parent birds play favourites. Nature 390:351–352CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Frith CB, Beehler BM (1998) The birds of paradise. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  20. Fujioka M (1985) Food delivery and sibling competition in experimentally even-aged broods of the cattle egret. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 17:67–74CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Godfray HCJ (1991) Signalling of need by offspring to their parents. Nature 352:328–330CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Godfray HCJ (1995) Evolutionary theory of parent–offspring conflict. Nature 376:133–138PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Godfray HCJ (1999) Parent–offspring conflict. In: Keller L (ed) Levels of selection in evolution. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  24. Godfray HCJ, Harper AB (1990) The evolution of brood reduction by siblicide in birds. J Theor Biol 145:163–175CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Godfray HCJ, Johnstone RA (2000) Begging and bleating: the evolution of parent–offspring signalling. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 355:1581–1591PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Gorman HE, Nager RG (2004) Prenatal developmental conditions have long-term effects on offspring fecundity. Proc R Soc Lond B 271:1923–1928CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Grafen A (1990) Biological signals as handicaps. J Theor Biol 144:517–546PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Haywood S, Perrins CM (1992) Is clutch size in birds affected by environmental conditions during growth? Proc R Soc Lond B 249:195–197CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Hinde CA (2006) Negotiation over offspring care? A positive response to partner-provisioning rate in great tits. Behav Ecol 17:6–12CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Horn AG, Leonard ML (2002) Efficacy and the design of begging signals. In: Wright J, Leonard ML (eds) The evolution of begging: competition, co-operation and communication. Kluwer, DordrechtGoogle Scholar
  31. Horsfall J (1984) Brood reduction and brood division in coots. Anim Behav 32:216–225CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Hunt S, Kilner RM, Langmore NE, Bennett ATD (2003) Conspicuous, ultraviolet-rich mouth colours in begging chicks. Proc R Soc Lond B 270:S25–S28CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Ingram C (1920) A contribution to the study of nestling birds. Ibis, 10th series 2:856–880CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Jourdie V, Moureau B, Bennett ATD Heeb P (2004) Ultraviolet reflectance by the skin of nestlings. Nature 431:262PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Kilner R (1997) Mouth colour is a reliable signal of need in begging canary nestlings. Proc R Soc Lond B 264:963–968CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Kilner RM (2006) Function and evolution of color in young birds. In: Hill G, McGraw K (eds) Bird coloration. Harvard University Press, LondonGoogle Scholar
  37. Kilner RM, Davies NB (1998) Nestling mouth colour: ecological correlates of a begging signal. Anim Behav 56:705–712PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Kilner RM, Noble DG, Davies NB (1999) Signals of need in parent–offspring communication and their exploitation by the cuckoo. Nature 397:667–672CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. de Kogel CH, Prijs HJ (1996) Effects of brood size manipulations on sexual attractiveness of offspring in the zebra finch. Anim Behav 51:699–708CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Krebs JR, Dawkins R (1984) Animal signals: mind-reading and manipulation. In: Krebs JR, Davies NB (eds) Behavioural ecology: an evolutionary approach. Blackwell, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  41. Langmore NE, Hunt S, Kilner RM (2003) Escalation of a co-evolutionary arms race through host rejection of brood parasitic young. Nature 422:157–160PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Layne JN (1982) Status of sibling aggression in Florida sandhill cranes. J Field Ornithol 53:272–274Google Scholar
  43. Leonard ML, Horn AG (2001a) Begging calls and parental feeding decisions in tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor). Behav Ecol Sociobiol 49:170–175CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Leonard ML, Horn AG (2001b) Dynamics of calling by tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) nestmates. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 50:430–435CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Leonard ML, Horn AG (2005) Ambient noise and the design of begging signals. Proc R Soc Lond B 272:651–656CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Leonard ML, Horn AG (2006) Age-related changes in signalling of need by nestling tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor). Ethology 112:1020–1026CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Lougheed LW, Anderson D J (1999) Parent blue-footed boobies suppress siblicidal behavior of offspring. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 45:11–18CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Lyon BE, Eadie JM, Hamilton LD (1994) Parental choice selects for ornamental plumage in American coot chicks. Nature 371:240–243CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Macnair MR, Parker GA (1978) Models of parent–offspring conflict. 2. Promiscuity. Anim Behav 26:111–122PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Macnair MR, Parker GA (1979) Models of parent–offspring conflict. III. Intra-brood conflict. Anim Behav 27:1202–1209CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Magrath RD (1990) Hatching asynchrony in altricial birds. Biol Rev 95:587–622CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Magrath RD (1991) Nestling weight and juvenile survival in the blackbird Turdus merula. J Anim Ecol 60:335–351CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. McDonald DB, Potts WK 1994 Co-operative display and relatedness among males in a lek-mating bird. Science 266:1030–1032PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Meyburg BU (1974) Sibling aggression and mortality among nestling eagles. Ibis 116:224–228CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Mock DW (1987) Siblicide, parent–offspring conflict and unequal parental investment by egrets and herons. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 20:247–256CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Mock DW, Parker GA (1986) Advantages and disadvantages of ardeid brood reduction. Evolution 40:459–470CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Mock DW, Parker GA (1997) The evolution of sibling rivalry. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  58. Mock DW, Ploger BJ (1987) Parental manipulation of optimal hatch asynchrony in cattle egrets: an experimental study. Anim Behav 35:150–160CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Mulder RA, Magrath MJL (1994) Timing of prenuptial molt as a sexually selected indicator of male quality in superb fairy-wrens (Malarus cyaneus). Behav Ecol 5:393–400CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Nager RG, Monaghan P, Houston DC (2000) Within-clutch trade-offs between the number and quality of eggs: experimental manipulations in gulls. Ecology 81:1339–1350CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Nelson JB (1978) The Sulidae: gannets and boobies. Oxford University Press, LondonGoogle Scholar
  62. O’Connor RJ (1978) Brood reduction in birds:selection for fratricide, infanticide, and suicide. Anim Behav 26:79–96CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Osorno JL, Drummond H (1995) The function of hatching asynchrony in the blue-footed booby. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 37:265–273CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Parker GA, Macnair MR (1978) Models of parent–offspring conflict. 1. Monogamy. Anim Behav 26:97–110PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Parker GA, Macnair MR (1979) Models of parent–offspring conflict. IV. Suppression and evolutionary retaliation by the parent. Anim Behav 27:1210–1235CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Parker GA, Royle NJ, Hartley IR (2002) Begging scrambles with unequal chicks: interactions between need and competitive ability. Ecol Lett 5:206–215CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Petrie M, Halliday T (1994) Experimental and natural changes in the peacock’s (Pave cristatus) train can affect mating success. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 35:213–217Google Scholar
  68. Pierrotti R (1991) Infanticide versus adoption—an intergenerational conflict. Am Nat 138:1140–1158CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Pinson D, Drummond H (1993) Brown pelican siblicide and the prey-size hypothesis. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 32:111–118CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Procter DLC (1975) The problem of chick loss in the South Polar skua Catharacta maccormicki. Ibis 117:452–459CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Redondo T, Castro F (1992) Signalling of nutritional need by magpie nestlings. Ethology 92:193–204CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Rowe EG (1947) The breeding biology of Aquila verreauxi (Lesson). Ibis 89:576–606CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Royle NJ, Hartley IR, Parker GA (2002) Begging for control: when are offspring solicitation behaviours honest? Trends Ecol Evol 17:434–440CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Saino N, Ninni P, Calza S, Martinelli R, De Bernardi F, Møller AP (2000) Better red than dead: carotenoid based mouth colouration reveals infection in barn swallow nestlings. Proc R Soc Lond B 267:57–61CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Saino N, Galeotti P, Sacchi R, Boncoraglio G, Martinelli R, Møller AP (2003) Sex differences in begging vocalizations of nestling barn swallows, Hirundo rustica. Anim Behav 66:1003–1010CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Schaller GB (1964) Breeding behavior of the white pelican at Yellowstone Lake, Wyoming. Condor 66:3–23CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Schuetz JG (2005) Low survival of parasite chicks may result from their imperfect adaptation to hosts rather than expression of defenses against parasitism. Evolution 59:2017–2024PubMedGoogle Scholar
  78. Schwabl H, Mock DW, Gieg J (1997) A hormonal mechanism for parental favouritism. Nature 386:231CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Siegfried WR (1972) Breeding success and reproductive output of the cattle egret. Ostrich 43:43–55Google Scholar
  80. Tortosa FS, Redondo T (1992) Motives for parental infanticide in white storks Ciconia ciconia. Ornis Scand 23:185–189CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Trivers RL (1974) Parent–offspring conflict. Am Zool 14:249–264Google Scholar
  82. Urrutia LP, Drummond H (1990) Brood reduction and parental infanticide in Heermann’s Gull (Larus heermanni). Auk 107:772–774Google Scholar
  83. Vestjens WJM (1977) Breeding behavior and ecology of the Australian pelican, Pelecanus conspicilatus, in New South Wales. Aust Wildl Res 4:37–58CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Young EC (1963) The breeding behaviour of the South Polar skua, Catharacta maccormicki. Ibis 105:203–233CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  85. Young EC, Miller CD (2003) Siblicidal brood reduction in South Polar skuas. NZ J Zool 30:79–93Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Dt. Ornithologen-Gesellschaft e.V. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of ZoologyUniversity of Cambridge CambridgeUK
  2. 2.Departamento de Ecología Evolutiva, Instituto de EcologíaUniversidad Nacional Autónoma de MéxicoMéxicoMexico

Personalised recommendations