Males and females of a polygamous songbird respond differently to mating opportunities

Jia Zheng, Jan Komdeur, Tamás Székely, Maaike A. Versteegh, Donglai Li, Hui Wang, Zhengwang Zhang

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Abstract: Parents are expected to make fine-tuned decisions by weighing the benefits of providing care to increase offspring survival against that of deserting to pursue future mating opportunities. A higher incentive for the rarer sex in the population indicates an impact of mating opportunities on parental care decisions. However, in a dynamic breeding system, deserting the offspring and searching for a new mate would influence mating opportunities for both sexes. Sex-specific costs and benefits are expected to influence males’ and females’ parenting strategies in different ways. Here, we investigated Chinese penduline tits, Remiz consobrinus, which exhibit flexible parental care strategies: uniparental care by the male or female, biparental care, and biparental desertion occur in the same population. We show that male penduline tits change their parental behavior over the breeding season; they desert clutches produced early in the season but care for the late season clutches. The change in male parenting behavior is consistent with the seasonal decline in mating opportunities. In contrast, parenting by females did not change over the breeding season, nor was it associated with seasonal variation in mate availability. Taken together, mating opportunities have different associations with parental behavior of male and female Chinese penduline tits. We recommend an inclusion of mating opportunities for both sexes simultaneously in order to understand one of the fundamental decisions in parental care evolution—care or desert. Significance statement: Divorce is a common feature of both human and nonhuman animal societies. Theoretical studies suggest that one of the drivers of divorce is enhanced mating opportunity, i.e., parents with higher mating opportunities are more likely to abandon their family than those with low mating opportunities. Here, we investigate the dynamics of parental behavior and mating opportunities in a wild population of a small songbird, the Chinese penduline tit Remiz consobrinus. This species exhibits one of the most diverse avian breeding systems wherein both uniparental (male or female) and biparental rearing can be seen in a single population. We show that male penduline tits abandon their offspring in response to enhanced mating opportunities while the female parental behavior remains unaffected. This implies the relationship between mating opportunities and parental care is more complex than currently acknowledged and requires further investigation.

Original languageEnglish
Article number72
JournalBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Issue number4
Early online date25 Mar 2021
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We sincerely thank Liaohekou National Nature Reserve for providing permissions to conduct field study, and Zhen Wang, Fenghai Qiao and all the volunteers for their assistance during the fieldwork. We thank Prof. Show-hsien Li, Dr. Charlotte Deerenberg, and Sudeshna Chakraborty who provided comments on and improved various drafts of the manuscript. We also thank the two anonymous referees for valuable comments and suggestions on a previous version of the manuscript.

Funding Information:
ZZ: took charge of editing the manuscript and provided primary financial support.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021, The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature.

Copyright 2021 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Mating opportunity
  • Mating system
  • Offspring desertion
  • Parental care
  • Sexual conflict

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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