Female house wrens value the nest cavity more than exclusive access to males during conflicts with female intruders

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Individuals should fight hardest when they stand to lose the most. Whereas males frequently compete for fertile females, females more often compete for high quality males, male care, or resources required to breed. We asked whether established, territorial female house wrens (Troglodytes aedon) challenged by simulated female intruders fight as if they place more value on retaining (1) their nesting cavity or (2) exclusive access to other benefits offered by males. We randomly assigned house wren pairs to receive one or three nest boxes and then assayed female aggression. The relative costs to losing differed between box treatments. For one-box females, the risk of losing the cavity and territory was higher. For three-box females, the risk of losing the cavity may be lower because intruders may be able to settle as secondary females in the supplemental boxes. In this situation, females would lose exclusive access to males and their territories but would still retain the male’s assistance rearing offspring since male house wrens favour their oldest brood. We found that one-box females were significantly more aggressive. This response may be adaptive, as females that switched territories between broods were significantly more likely to lose their entire nest prior to hatching than females that retained the same territory. We interpret our results to mean that female house wrens value the nest cavity more than other benefits from exclusive access to males and their territories. This work contributes to a body of evidence that females often compete for resources required to breed.



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  • The potential outcomes and associated costs for resident female house wrens facing female intruders on one-box and three-box territories.

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  • (a) The mean number of attacks (± SE) and (c) the mean latency to approach within 5 meters (± SE) of a simulated intruder by females assigned to the one-box or three-box treatment. (b) The mean number of attacks (± SE) and (d) the mean latency to approach within 5 meters (± SE) during heterospecific playback by females assigned to the one-box or three-box treatment. Number in parentheses indicate the number of females in each category. The p-values are the result from a Poisson generalized linear mixed model (a) or linear mixed models (c, d).

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  • The mean (± SE) time it took mates of one-box and three-box females to approach within 5 m of a simulated female intruder. Numbers in parentheses indicate the number of males in each category. The p-value is the result from a Wilcoxon rank sum test.

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  • (a) Females that switched territories between their first and second brood were significantly more likely to fail to fledge any second brood offspring (dark bars, binomial generalized linear model, p=0.036). (b) When females that failed were removed, the mean (± SE) number of offspring fledged did not differ between females that stayed and switched (Wilcoxon rank sum test, p=0.24). Numbers in parentheses indicate the number of females in each category.

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  • Nest box with predator guard from our house wren population.

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  • One song from female trial playback stimuli (a) f-17-2013 from female bl/pu, yw/al (254067679); (b) f-17b1-2013 and f-17-2012 from female or/bk, gn/al (254067458); (c) f-14-2013 from female yw/al, pu/bl (254067497); (d) f-21-2012 and f-21-2013 from female yw/rd, gn/al (254067600); (e) f-23-2012, f-23-2013 from female gn/rd, rd/al (254067466); (f) f-18-2013 from female bl/bk, yw/al (254067680); (g) f-38-2013 from an unbanded female, (h) f-17b2-2013 from female or/bk, gn/al (254067458); (i) f-25-2013 from female bl/yw, yw/al (254067704); (j) f-27-2013 from female pu/or, bk/al (254067563); (k) f-42-2013 from female pu/yw, rd/al (254067693); (l) f-c1-2013 from female bk/gn, yw/al (254067686); (m) f-a1-2013 from female yw/al, bk/yw (254067172); (n) f-a2-2012 and f-a2-2013 from an unbanded female, (o) f-a6-2012 from female bk/pu, rd/al (254066778); (p) f-b52-2013 from female rd/al, pi/bk (254066770); (q) f-c4-2012 from female wh/pi, gn/al (254067063); (r) f-c4-2013 from female wh/pi, gn/al (254067063); (s) f-c5-2013 from female bl/pu, pi/al (254067313). Background bird sounds are present in (b) between 0.1–0.4 s, (i) at 1.1 s, (j) between 1.2–1.8 s, (l) between 0.8–1.4 s and (q) at 0.3 and 0.6 s.

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  • One song from male trial playback stimuli (a) m-1-2012 and m-1-2013 from male pu/pi, al/rd (251010447); (b) m-14-2012 and m-14-2013 from male pi/wh, bk/al (254067464); (c) m-a1-2013 from male rd/pi, bl/al (254066571); (d) m-19-2012 and m-19-2013 from an unbanded male; (e) m-c1-2013 from male bl/rd, or/al (254067689); (f) m-10b-2012 and m-10b-2013 from male bl/rd, bk/al (254067434); (g) m-16-2013 from male or/bl, or/al (254067688); (h) m-a3b-2013 from male rd/al, pi/pu (254067705); (i) m-a3-2012 and m-a3-2013 from male gn/or, rd/al (254067320); (j) m-a7-2013 from male pi/al, wh/pu (254067524); (k) m-41-2013 from male bk/bl, pu/al (254066916); (l) m-21-2012 and m-21-2013 from an unbanded male; (m) m-a4-2013 from male bl/bl, pu/al (254066760); (n) m-c5-2013 from male bk/pu, gn/al (254067120).

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  • Reproductive performance during the first brood for 13 females that stayed on the same territory for their second brood and 15 females that switched to a new territory for their second brood.

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  • The proportion of females experiencing each outcome for their first brood for females that stayed on their first brood territory and females that switched to a new territory.

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  • The proportion of females experiencing each outcome for their second brood for females that stayed on their first brood territory and females that switched to a new territory.

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  • The mean (± SE) attacks (left) and time to approach within 5 m (right) by male house wrens during simulated heterospecific, female, and male intruders. The p-values are the result of a linear mixed model with trial type as a fixed effect, male identity as a random effect, and Tukey post-hoc corrections to control for multiple comparisons. ** p<0.001.

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