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Abstract

The probability of divorce in birds has been linked with age, breeding experience, reproductive output and synchrony in return. Here, we investigate the consequences of first breeding attempts in common terns for mating in the subsequent season. Nearly 20% of all first-time breeders disappeared or skipped at least one season after recruitment. In 84 pairs, which consisted of at least one recruit and of which both partners returned to the colony, the divorce rate was 45%. We compared reproductive success, arrival dates, and asynchrony in arrival dates of pairs of the first breeding season against the second season, for both reunited and divorced pairs and males and females separately. First, in pairs of which both members came back to the colony, we found an increase of reproductive success most pronounced in males. In the second season reproductive success of divorced compared with reunited pairs was higher, as only divorced pairs significantly improved the number of fledglings, and again this relation was stronger in males. Secondly, females of reunited pairs arrived significantly earlier from the first to the second season and by far more days than their males. However, in divorced pairs former mates did not differ in the number of days they advance their arrivals. Finally, divorced males arrived on average 4 d earlier than their former mates, whereas divorced females arrived 5 d later compared with their former mates of the recruitment season. Contradictory to nearly all other divorce studies in birds so far, we found a clear fitness gain in divorced males. We suggest that the improvement in reproductive success of young males stems from a side-effect of the birds’ quality and ability to reach the breeding site in appropriate time and earlier as potential competitors. In long-lived bird species the heterogeneity among young individuals in the timing of arrival at the colony seems to explain why former recruit-pairs reunite or split. For young males we suggest as best explanation of divorce that they profit from ‘pushing for an empty chair’, while females seem to profit from their choosiness and may actively decide between former and other mates.