Weather matters: begging calls are temperature- and size-dependent signals of offspring state

in Behaviour
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Begging calls provide a way for parents to gauge offspring state. Although temperature is known to affect call production, previous studies have not examined the influence of ambient temperature at the nest. We recorded ambient temperature and begging calls of 3 day-old tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor). Our results indicate that typical daily temperature flux can dramatically alter a brood’s begging calls, depending on body size. Broods with small (low body mass) nestlings decreased the rate and length of their calls at colder temperatures, consistent with a biophysical constraint. In contrast, broods with large (high body mass) nestlings increased the rate of their calls at colder temperatures. Parents responded in a context-dependent manner, returning more rapidly after smaller nestlings gave longer begging calls. Our results suggest that the function of offspring begging calls is highly dynamic, with environmental conditions altering the relationship between begging calls and offspring state.

Weather matters: begging calls are temperature- and size-dependent signals of offspring state

in Behaviour



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    Ambient temperature flux during the breeding season at the Queen’s University Biological Station in 2013. Alternating shaded and white bars denote calendar days. Circles mark the times of audio recordings at 27 nests, with points jittered for visibility.

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    Sound spectrograms of parent-offspring interactions (a, b). A = sound of the parent arriving at the nest box; P = parental ‘chirp’ call; N = nestling begging ‘tseep’ call. The corresponding audio files are available as Supplementary material in the online edition of this journal, which can be accessed via The incidence of parent and offspring calls is highest immediately after parental arrival and decreases thereafter (c, d). Each plot shows the grand mean number of calls for 5 s intervals, with shaded 95% confidence intervals. Note that the data in panels c and d include nests and visits that were not included in further statistical analyses.

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    As ambient temperature increases, begging call rate (a) and begging call length (c) increase for broods with smaller nestlings. In contrast, begging call rate (b) and length (d) decrease with ambient temperature for broods with larger nestlings. Lines show regression predictions from the analyses in Tables 2 and 3, with covariates set to their mean values, and body mass set to 5.4 g in (a, c) and 8.0 g in (b, d). Note that offspring mass is treated as a continuous variable in analyses, with separate categories shown here as a means of illustrating the interaction between two continuous variables (mass and temperature). Points are shaded semi-transparently to indicate the density of overlapping data.

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    Predictions for the fitted models in Tables 2 and 3. At warm temperatures, the smallest nestlings are predicted to beg the most intensely (i.e., consistent with “signal of need”). At cold temperatures, the largest nestlings are predicted to beg the most intensely (consistent with “signal of quality”). All other covariates were set to their mean values to determine the predicted values.

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    Parent tree swallows (a) returned to the nest sooner after experiencing longer begging calls by small nestlings, but (b) the time taken by parents to return to the nest was not associated with begging call length for parents with large nestlings. The time taken by parents to return to the nest was also not associated with per capita begging call rate (c) or ambient temperature (d). Lines in panels a and b show regression predictions from the analysis in Table 4, with covariates set to their mean values, except for body mass which was set to 5.4 g in (a) and 8.0 g in (b). Note that offspring mass is treated as a continuous variable in analyses, with separate categories shown in (a, b) as a means of illustrating the interaction between the two continuous variables (mass and call length). Points are shaded semi-transparently to indicate the density of overlapping data.


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