Avian Helpers at the Nest: Are they Psychologically Castrated?


Max-Planck-Institut für Verhaltensphysiologie, D-8131 Seewiesen.


In cooperatively breeding pied kingfishers (Ceryle rudis) blood plasma levels of LH and testosterone (T) were compared among three types of males: breeders, primary (= related) helpers and secondary (= unrelated) helpers. These categories did not differ in LH, but primary helpers had significantly lower T titers than breeders and secondary helpers. The low levels were paralleled by small gonad sizes and no sperm production, suggesting that primary helpers were not able to fertilize eggs.

The differences in T levels could neither be attributed to stochastic variation nor to differences in age, stress, molt, or reproductive activities. The most likely explanation arises from the observation that primary helpers are behaviorally dominated by breeders, whereas secondary helpers are not.

The adaptive significance of low T titers and reduced fertility as a result from being dominated is discussed on the basis of empirical data and theoretical models. We argue that primary helpers in the pied kingfisher, and subordinate helpers in many other cooperative breeders, apparently are not “unwillingly” suppressed in their sexual development; they rather “choose” delayed reproduction when the costs from sexual competition with breeders exceed the benefits from cooperative breeding. In contrast, helpers that benefit more from competition than from cooperation, as secondary helpers do, cannot be expected to show reduced fertility.