Reduced reproductive performance prior to death in the Black-legged Kittiwake: senescence or terminal illness?


  • J. C. Coulson,

  • J. A. Fairweather

J. C. Coulson, 29 St Mary's Close, Shincliffe, Durham City DH1 2ND, UK. E-mail: J. A. Fairweather, Scottish Natural Heritage, Golspie, Sutherland, Scotland.


The breeding of Black-legged Kittiwakes Rissa tridactyla in their last breeding season has been compared with that of pairs which survived to the next breeding season. The time of laying was not affected but the clutch size, breeding success and productivity were significantly lower and a higher proportion of pairs totally failed to rear any young in pairs where one of the partners died before the next breeding season. When both partners died before the next breeding season, the breeding performance was reduced to a greater extent, suggesting an additive influence. The depressive effect on the last breeding attempt was confirmed by comparing the breeding success of individual females in their ultimate and penultimate breeding attempts. The effect was present in breeding birds of all ages, from first time breeders to the oldest individuals, and so could not be interpreted as an effect of senescence. Most of the adults which died apparently did so several months after breeding, during the winter half of the year when the kittiwake is oceanic. It is suggested that this depressive effect on breeding is the result of terminal illness which caused the birds to lose condition progressively over several weeks or months. It is possible that stress in the form of disease or parasite infections is primarily responsible for the death of many of the individuals. Attention is drawn to the possible confusion between the effect reported here and claims that senescence leads to lower reproductive output in old birds. It is suggested that more critical examinations are needed of claims that senescence directly affects the breeding success of birds.