Risk of predation on offspring reduces parental provisioning, but not flight performance or survival across early life stages

James C. Mouton, Bret W. Tobalske, Natalie A. Wright, Thomas E. Martin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Developmental responses can help young animals reduce predation risk but can also yield costs to performance and survival in subsequent life stages with major implications for lifetime fitness. Compensatory mechanisms may evolve to offset such costs, but evidence from natural systems is largely lacking. In songbirds, increased nest predation risk should favour reduced provisioning, but also young that fledge (leave their nest) at an earlier age. Both responses can result in fledglings with shorter wings, reduced mobility and decreased survival. Young may compensate for shorter wings developmentally by reallocating resources towards feather development or behaviourally by adjusting flight kinematics or habitat use. However, underfed young may lack the capacity to express these phenotypes due to insufficient resources or an inability to adjust allocation of resources. Using predation risk experiments and 29 years of observational field data, we test whether increased nest predation risk reduces flight performance and survival during the fledgling stage and explore potential mechanisms that might underlie these effects. We show that young from high-risk nests did not leave the nest earlier on average, but wing growth was slower likely due to observed reductions in parental feeding rates. Wings were shorter in high-risk nests when fledglings left the nest early. Yet, fledglings from high-risk nests showed improved flight performance for a given wing length such that flight performance at fledging did not differ between young from high-risk and low-risk nests. Young from high-risk nests may have offset the costs of shorter wings on flight performance by accelerating the emergence of flight feathers from their sheaths to reduce wing porosity, though evidence for this mechanism was mixed. Fledglings from high-risk nests also selected habitat with denser woody vegetation compared with young from low-risk nests. Together, these developmental and behavioural responses seem to mitigate the expected effects of increased nest predation risk on fledgling survival. Ultimately, our results show that offspring predation risk can affect parental provisioning and offspring morphology without major implications for performance and survival in subsequent life stages. A free Plain Language Summary can be found within the Supporting Information of this article.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2147-2157
Number of pages11
JournalFunctional Ecology
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 1 2020


  • carry-over effects
  • catch-up growth
  • compensatory behaviour
  • developmental plasticity
  • fledgling survival
  • flight performance
  • kinematics
  • nest predation risk


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