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Nestling detectability affects parental feeding preferences in a cavity-nesting bird
In many avian species, nestlings have evolved striking plumage, behaviours and mouth colours to obtain a greater share of parental investment. Studies revealing parental feeding preferences for nestlings with red gapes have proposed that red mouth colour in songbirds can act as a signal of nestling need or condition. Alternative hypotheses suggest that bright nestling mouths in cavity-nesting birds evolved to increase nestling detectability by the parents. We tested whether nestling mouth colour affects parental feeding preferences in great tits, Pants major L. In broods of six young, we experimentally painted mouth gapes and flanges either red or yellow and tested the effect of mouth colour on nestlings' mass gain under two lighting conditions. In nests with high luminosity, there was no significant effect of mouth colour on mass gain. In nests with low luminosity, nestlings with red gapes and flanges gained less mass than nestlings with red gapes and yellow flanges or both yellow gapes and flanges. Our results suggest that, in nests with low luminosity, red mouths decreased nestling detectability to the feeding parents and support the hypothesis that poor luminosity in nesting cavities can select for pale mouths. Overall, our results do not support the hypothesis that red mouth colour signals nestling need or condition to parent great tits.
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