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How avian incubation behaviour influences egg surface temperatures: relationships with egg position, development and clutch size


P. Cassey, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Univ. of Adelaide, SA 5005, Australia. E-mail:


While understanding heat exchange between incubating adults and their eggs is central to the study of avian incubation energetics, current theory based on thermal measurements from dummy eggs reveals little about the mechanisms of this heat exchange or behavioural implications for the incubating bird. For example, we know little about how birds distribute their eggs based on temperature differences among egg positions within the nest cup. We studied the great tit Parus major, a species with a large clutch size, to investigate surface cooling rates of individual eggs within the nest cup across a range of ambient temperatures in a field situation. Using state-of-the-art portable infrared imaging and digital photography we tested for associations between egg surface temperature (and rate of cooling) and a combination of egg specific (mass, shape, laying order, position within clutch) and incubation specific (clutch size, ambient temperature, day of incubation) variables. Egg surface temperature and cooling rates were related to the position of the eggs within the nest cup, with outer eggs being initially colder and cooling quicker than central eggs. Between foraging bouts, females moved outer eggs significantly more than centrally positioned eggs. Our results demonstrate that females are capable of responding to individual egg temperature by moving eggs around the nest cup, and that the energy cost to the female may increase as incubation proceeds. In addition, our results showing that smaller clutches experience lower initial incubation temperatures and cool quicker than larger clutches warrant further attention for optimal clutch size theory and studies of energetic constraints during incubation. Finally, researchers using dummy eggs to record egg temperature have ignored important elements of contact-incubation, namely the complexity of how eggs cool and how females respond to these changes.