Age of the incubating parents affects nestling survival: an experimental study of the herring gull Larus argentatus


  • Maria I. Bogdanova,

  • Ruedi G. Nager,

  • Pat Monaghan

M. I. Bogdanova (correspondence), R. Nager and Pat Monaghan, Division of Environmental and Evolutionary Biology, Institute of Biomedical and Life Sciences, Graham Kerr Building, University of Glasgow, Glasgow G12 8QQ,UK. E-mail:


The quality of conditions provided by avian parents will have consequences for both parental and offspring fitness. While many components of avian reproduction appear to vary with parental age, the effect of age on incubation has largely been ignored so far. In this study, we tested whether young herring gulls provide a different incubation environment from mature ones and whether this has consequences for offspring performance. Laying and rearing conditions were standardised using a cross-fostering protocol. Egg predation rates tended to be higher in the nests of young parents. However, nest site, nest construction and egg temperature during incubation did not vary with parental age. Overall, the duration of incubation was shorter in young compared to mature birds and this reflected the later laying date of the former, since incubation duration generally decreased across the season. However, male eggs incubated by young parents had longer incubation periods than predicted for their laying dates. In contrast, incubation length of female eggs incubated by young pairs, and of male and female eggs incubated by mature birds did not deviate from the expected for any given laying date. Offspring that had been incubated by young parents had considerably poorer survival than those incubated by mature pairs, despite being reared under standardized, favourable conditions (singly, by mature parents). This was due to increased mortality among female chicks that had been incubated by young parents. The chicks incubated as eggs by young and mature birds, which survived until fledging, did not differ in body mass and size growth, or body condition. The results of this study demonstrate that parental age can influence offspring performance via variation in incubation environment, and that females are more susceptible than males to conditions experienced during embryonic development.