We hypothesized that increasing chick plasma testosterone concentrations, transmitted from the mothers via their eggs, enhances survival of their offspring and that the fitness of the young, depending on the maternal hormones, is influenced by parental quality. To test our hypotheses we distinguished the broods of white storks Ciconia ciconia L. where chicks died and those where all chicks survived. We analysed the plasma testosterone concentrations in the chicks, the ability of the chicks to be first to receive food and the mass of chicks before fledging in relation to their hatching order and recorded the body mass of parents and food mass delivered by them.
Female storks used the asymmetries in testosterone concentrations within a brood to control brood size and adjusted the number of young hatched to match the parental ability to rear offspring. Females of poor condition altered the testosterone concentrations to produce large differences between the chicks: The first-hatched chicks, which had high plasma testosterone levels, responded faster to the feeding parent and received more food than did their younger siblings. One or two later-hatched chicks, which had lower testosterone levels, died in these broods. Females in good condition produced small differences in testosterone concentrations between the chicks and all chicks survived in their brood. Chicks that were raised by the females of poor condition in reduced broods were heavier than chicks that were raised by females of good condition in broods where all chicks survived.
We suggest that the control of brood size by testosterone concentration, transmitted by the mother to the chicks, is a hormonal means of condition-dependent reproductive strategy in the white stork.