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Competing Females and Caring Males. Polyandry and Sex-Role Reversal in African Black Coucals, Centropus grillii


Wolfgang Goymann, Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Von-Der-Tann-Str. 7, D-82346 Andechs, Germany. E-mail:


Most species of birds show bi-parental or female-only care. However, a minority of species is polyandrous and expresses male-only care. So far, such reversals in sex roles have been demonstrated only in precocial bird species, but there was suggestive evidence that such a mating system may occur in one altricial bird species, the black coucal, Centropus grillii. In a field study in Tanzania we investigated whether black coucals are sex-role reversed and polyandrous. We found that males were mated to one female, rarely vocalized and provided all parental care from incubation of eggs to feeding of young. In contrast, female black coucals were about 69% heavier and 39% larger than males and polyandrous. They spent a large proportion of time calling from conspicuous perches, defended breeding territories, did not help in provisioning young and had a higher potential reproductive rate than males. We conclude that the black coucal currently represents the only altricial bird species with sole male parental care and a classical polyandrous mating system. High nest predation pressure and small territory sizes due to high food abundance may have been important factors in the evolution of sex-role reversal and polyandry in this species.

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