The effect of egg mass on the growth and survival of blackbirds: a field experiment


  • Robert D. Magrath

    1. *Division of Botany and Zoology, Australian National University, GPO Box 4, Canberra 2601, Australia
    2. Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, South Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3PS, UK
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A number of studies on birds have shown a positive correlation between egg mass and the growth (or survival) of chicks. However, a correlation based on non-experimental data does not demonstrate that egg mass affects growth, because it could be confounded by parental or territory quality. One way to see if pre-hatching attributes affect growth or survival is to swap hatchlings between nests, so that parental or territory quality do not confound correlations. I conducted such a fostering experiment on the blackbird, Turdus merula. Apart from very light eggs, that did not hatch, egg mass did not affect hatching success. Heavier eggs produced both heavier and larger nestlings. Nestlings raised by their own parents showed a positive correlation between hatchling mass and mass and size both early (day-4) and late (day-8) in the nestling period. The mass and size of fostered nestlings correlated with the mean mass of their natural parents' hatchlings, with higher coefficients early rather than late in the nestling period. By contrast, early in the nestling period there were no significant correlations of nestling mass or size and mean hatchling mass of the foster parents, but there were significant correlations late in the nestling period. Thus pre-hatching attributes of the egg do affect nestling size but environmental effects, including parental or territory quality, have an affect late in the nestling period. Direct manipulations of components of egg mass are required before one can conclude that egg mass affects growth, rather than some correlated pre-hatching attribute. There was no clear effect of egg mass on the probability that a hatching bird would survive until two weeks after fledging (shortly before nutritional independence), despite the fact that nestling mass does correlate with fledgling survival. I suggest that egg mass affects the ‘size’ component of mass and that juvenile survival depends on the ‘condition’ component of mass.