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Researchers: When mates are rare, birds help their parents raise more offspring

Why fly the coop? With shortage of mates, some birds choose to help others raise offspring
Researcher Jessica Cusick keeps tabs on the birds/Tara Tanaka

Male birds are more likely to do so:

After a five-year experiment, researchers from Florida State University and the Tallahassee-based Tall Timbers Research Station found that when fewer mates were available for brown-headed nuthatches, these small pine-forest birds opted to stay home and help their parents or other adults raise their offspring…

Associate Professor of Biological Science Emily DuVal and Jim Cox, a vertebrate ecologist from Tall Timbers and a courtesy faculty member at FSU, had long been interested in how these tiny birds showed cooperation—that is often having non-breeding young adults hang out and help raise chicks. After all, bypassing the chance to reproduce is not typically how nature works…

This was the first large-scale, experimental evidence that the sex ratio of males and females could affect cooperative breeding, the researchers said.

Not all birds breed cooperatively, but it is commonly found among crows and jays. Birds with such complex social behavior are often long-lived, and this work built on nearly a decade of careful population monitoring by Cox and his Tall Timbers Research Station team to identify nests and breeding pairs.

The researchers also found that many of the nests took on additional helpers. While there is usually only one bird acting as a helper each year, in this case, some nests had three. Florida State University, “Why fly the coop? With shortage of mates, some birds choose to help others raise offspring” at Phys.org

Interestingly, the researchers avoided trying to shoehorn the story into a Darwinian mold. It’s true that the next batch of eggs will share some genes with the babysitter bird but what if neo-Darwinian gene competition isn’t really what is happening at all? The bird can’t find a mate so it starts to engage in nesting behaviour around the nest it grew up in, simply because that’s what it would have done anyway? Then, while we can reasonably guess that the bird who does so helps more chicks who share some genes survive, that’s not the cause of the behavior.

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See also: Birds are found to plan like humans for their offsprings’ future Yes, the Darwinbird of pop science can do that! No natural mechanism is remotely suggested, so we must assume that it is sheer mental power, of the sort that we species-ists once thought existed only in humans, that enables the hen bird to plan for her chicks’ future. Shame on us!

A First: Solitary Bees Serve As Stepdads One question comes to mind: For the males, competing for females who are present is cognitively easy. But how do they know about the females who are still larvae? Can they smell them? If not, the behavior seems to require a foresight that is beyond the known cognitive powers of the bee.


Can sex explain evolution?


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