Social groups of acorn woodpeckers (Melanerpesformicivorus) range in size from unaided pairs to 15 adults. Behavioural indicators of mate guarding, assumed incest avoidance and observations of egg-laying indicate that social organization ranges from monogamous pairs to groups with up to seven male and three female putative cobreeders plus up to 10 nonbreeding helpers. In addition, groups occasionally lack a putative breeder throughout the breeding season. Here we report results from multilocus DNA fingerprinting of 372 nestlings from 123 nests in groups with putative cobreeders of one or both sexes. No extra-group fertilizations were found. Putative cobreeding males within social groups shared paternity. However, the most reproductively successful male was, on average, almost three times as successful as the next most successful and additional males only occasionally sired offspring. In contrast, cobreeding females shared parentage equally. Helpers never bred incestuously when their opposite-sex parent (or another relative, such as their uncle) held breeding status in the group. However, during breeding male vacancies, 14 nestlings were produced when helper males bred incestuously with their mother. Both male and female helpers usually became successful cobreeders with their same-sex parent following replacement of the opposite-sex breeder(s) by unrelated individuals.
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