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Summary

Burrowing is a widespread nesting behaviour, found in vertebrates and invertebrates. It is particularly common in small procellariiform seabirds such as blue petrels (Halobaena caerulea) and Antarctic prions (Pachyptila desolata), two closely related petrel species. However, digging a burrow is costly and alternative strategies may evolve. Accordingly, blue petrel males can adopt two alternative nesting strategies: digging a new burrow or squatting in an empty one. Importantly, a blue petrel squatter arriving at the colony to breed is more likely to find empty Antarctic prion burrows than empty blue petrel burrows, since the former species only start breeding a month later. However, squatting in a prion’s burrow is risky for blue petrels as the legitimate owner very often returns and claims the burrow back, thus ruining the squatter’s breeding attempt. We present here results of a survey of two sympatric colonies of blue petrels and Antarctic prions on Kerguelen Island. Our data show that blue petrel squatters preferentially occupy blue petrel empty burrows. To investigate potential underlying mechanisms behind this preference, we used a simple Y-maze design to show that blue petrels can discriminate and prefer their specific odour over the prion odour. Our results confirm the existence of alternative burrowing strategies in blue petrels and suggest that squatters could use olfaction to avoid the less suitable Antarctic prion burrows.