Time allocation between feeding and incubation in uniparental arctic-breeding shorebirds: energy reserves provide leeway in a tight schedule

I. Tulp, H. Schekkerman

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Birds with uniparental incubation may face a time allocation problem between incubation and feeding. Eggs need regular warming to hatch successfully, but the parent must leave the nest to feed and safeguard its own survival. Time allocation during incubation is likely to depend on factors influencing egg cooling rates, parental energy requirements and feeding intake rate. How this allocation problem is resolved was subject of this study on arctic-breeding shorebirds. We compared incubation rhythms between four uniparental shorebird species differing in size and expected to find both species differences and weather effects on the organisation of incubation. Attentive behaviour and responses to variation in weather showed a remarkable consistency across species. All species alternated feeding bouts (recesses) with brooding bouts throughout the day. Recesses were concentrated in the warmer parts of the day, while recess duration showed little diurnal variation. Despite continuous daylight, a pronounced day-night rhythmicity was apparent. The four species in this study spent a similar proportion (13-19%) of the time off their nest. After correction for weather effects, the number of recesses was largest in the smallest species, while recess duration was longest in the largest species. Total recess time per day increased on cold days through an increase of mean recess length, while the number of recesses decreased. Comparing our observations to predictions derived from criteria that birds might use to organise their attentive behaviour, showed that the limits are set by parental requirements, while the energy stores of adults provide some leeway for short-term adjustments to environmental variability. If breeding birds trade off feeding time against incubation time, energy stores are expected to be influenced by weather. We expected uniparental species to be more likely to show weather effects on condition than biparentals, as in the latter 'off duty' time is much larger and independent of weather. This prediction was tested by comparing energy stores in two uniparental species and a biparental congener. While body mass of uniparental incubators decreased after a period with low temperatures, body mass of the biparental species did not.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)207-218
JournalJournal of Avian Biology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2006


  • sandpipers
  • clutch
  • attentiveness
  • expenditure


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