A long-term study of reproductive performance in tree swallows: the influence of age and senescence on output


  • Raleigh J. Robertson,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Biology, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario K7L 3N6 Canada
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  • Wallace B. Rendell

    1. Department of Biology, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario K7L 3N6 Canada
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      Present address: Wallace Rendell, Hastings Natural History Reservation, Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California at Berkeley, 3101 Valley Life Sciences Building, Berkeley, CA 94720–3160 USA. Tel.: (415) 221–7400. E-mail: wbr_berkeley@hotmail.com

Dr Wallace Rendell, #3–1859 Fulton Street, San Francisco, CA 94117 USA. wbr_berkeley@hotmail.com


  • 1We describe age-related reproductive performance and recapture rates of tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor Vieillot) based on a 25-year study of a nestbox population in south-eastern Ontario, Canada (1975–99).
  • 2Performance improved from first-time breeders to intermediate-aged birds. Nest initiation advanced, and clutch size increased in both sexes. In females the number of hatchlings and fledglings increased, and the proportion of nests failing completely declined. Performance declined in females after ‘middle-age’, in the number of young fledged, and the proportion of young fledged relative to initial clutch and brood size. Also, the proportion of nests that failed completely increased in the oldest birds. Males showed similar patterns.
  • 3An index of performance incorporating clutch size, hatching and fledging efficiency, and two measures of total nest failure increased to, then declined after, 4 years of age in females and 3 years in males. The relationship between this index and age was best predicted by quadratic regression.
  • 4We found no support for three of four hypotheses to explain improvement in performance with age. Recapture rates declined after age 4Y in males, but remained unchanged in females until age 7Y +, while output decreased in both sexes (Residual Reproductive Value). Birds breeding repeatedly did not perform better during their first attempt compared to birds that bred only once (Selection). Birds with varied breeding experience did not differ in their performance within age-groups (Breeding Experience). We did find support for the Breeding Age hypothesis; in females with no breeding experience, there was a successive advance in laying and increase in clutch size from 2 to 4 years of age.
  • 5Improved performance may be due to skills acquired with age, such as those devoted to feeding and balancing energy demands, which are necessary to prepare and maintain individual condition prior to, and during, breeding. Senescence in performance after ‘middle-age’ may result from accumulated costs of previous breeding effort which have been identified in this species based on research elsewhere.