1. Grouping provides antipredatory benefits, and therefore aggregation tendencies increase under heightened predation risk. In socially breeding groups, however, conflicts over reproductive shares or safety tend to disintegrate groups. Group formation thereby involves a balance between the antipredatory benefits of aggregation and the destabilizing effect of reproductive conflict.
2. We study the grouping behaviour of a facultatively social precocial sea duck with uniparental female care, the eider (Somateria mollissima Linnaeus). Females tend their young solitarily or in groups of 2–5 females. Here, we focus on the effect predation on adults has on group-formation decisions of brood-caring females.
3. By modifying an existing bidding game over care, we model the effects of predation risk on the width of the window of selfishness, which delimits the reproductive sharing allowing cooperation within brood-rearing coalitions, and generate predictions about the relative frequencies of solitary versus cooperative parental care modes. Furthermore, we model the dilution effect as a function of female group size and predation risk.
4. The window of selfishness widens with increasing predation risk, and the dilution of predation risk increases with both female group size and increasing predation risk, yielding the following predictions: (i) cooperative brood care becomes more prevalent and, conversely, solitary brood care less prevalent under heightened predation risk and (ii) group sizes increase concomitantly.
5. We tested these predictions using 13 years of data on female grouping decisions and annual predation rates, while controlling for the potentially confounding effect of female body condition.
6. Our data supported both predictions, where heightened predation risk of nesting females, but not changes in their condition, increased the relative frequency of cooperative brood care. Increased female nesting mortality also resulted in larger groups of cooperative females.
7. The predation risk of incubating females has long-term implications for later parental care decisions. We discuss the potential consequences of predation-induced shifts in group size on per capita fitness and population-wide productivity.