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An Experimental Study of Chick Provisioning in the Cooperatively Breeding Acorn Woodpecker



Walter D. Koenig, Lab of Ornithology, Cornell University, 159 Sapsucker Woods Road, Ithaca, NY 14850, USA.



Acorn woodpeckers (Melanerpes formicivorus) are cooperative breeders in which groups consist of a variable number of cobreeding males, joint-nesting females, and non-breeding helpers of both sexes that are offspring from prior nests. We temporarily manipulated brood size of nests to determine the feeding response of birds in relation to their status (breeder or non-breeding helper) and sex. All categories of birds responded similarly to brood size increases, adjusting their feeding rate upwards so as to maintain approximately the same per-nestling feeding rate. Breeders, however, exhibited more flexibility with respect to brood size reductions, decreasing their feeding rate while helpers did not. This suggests that the ‘feeding rules’ of helpers are less flexible than those of breeders, a result not previously detected in other cooperative breeders that have been studied to date. Particularly surprising was the finding that helpers maintain their feeding rates when brood demand is decreased rather than when it was increased, suggesting that the flexibility they exhibit is not a result of birds using the opportunity afforded by reduced brood demand to engage in other less cooperative activities.