Effects of temperature and nest heat exposure on nestling growth, dehydration and survival in a Mediterranean hole-nesting passerine

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Abstract

Variable environments impose constraints on adaptation by modifying selection gradients unpredictably. Optimal bird development requires an adequate thermal range, outside which temperatures can alter nestling physiology, condition and survival. We studied the effect of temperature and nest heat exposure on the reproductive success of a population of double-brooded Spotless Starlings Sturnus unicolor breeding in a nestbox colony in central Spain with a marked intra-seasonal variation in temperature. We assessed whether the effect of temperature differed between first and second broods, thus constraining optimal nest-site choice. Ambient temperature changed greatly during the chick-rearing period and had a strong influence on nestling mass and all body size measures we recorded, although patterns of clutch size or nestling mortality were not influenced. This effect differed between first and second broods: nestlings were found to have longer wings and bills with increasing temperature in first broods, whereas the effect was the opposite in second broods. Ambient temperature was not related to nestling body mass or tarsus-length in first broods, but in second broods, nestlings were lighter and had smaller tarsi with higher ambient temperatures. The exposure of nestboxes to heat influenced nestling morphology: heat exposure index was negatively related to nestling body mass and wing-length in second broods, but not in first broods. Furthermore, there was a positive relationship between nest heat exposure and nestling dehydration. Our results suggest that optimal nest choice is constrained by varying environmental conditions in birds breeding over prolonged periods, and that there should be selection for parents to switch from sun-exposed to sun-protected nest-sites as the season progresses. However, nest-site availability and competition for sites are likely to impose constraints on this choice.

Ancillary