Common Loon Parents Defend Chicks According to Both Value and Vulnerability

Jukkala, Gabriella; Piper, Walter

5 May 2015

In many territorial breeders, conspecifics that intrude during the chick rearing period pose a threat to survival of young. Defense of young from intruders is costly to parents, so it is likely that intense selective pressure has shaped chick defense so as to maximize parental fitness. We simulated territorial intrusion by exposing adult common loons (Gavia immer) and their chicks to a decoy and used mixed models to investigate responses. We tested two hypotheses: 1) the value hypothesis, which holds that parents should defend large broods of offspring more strongly because of the greater potential fitness benefits they offer, and 2) the vulnerability hypothesis, which predicts vigorous defense of young offspring, whose small size and limited mobility render them vulnerable to sudden attacks from intruders that approach under water. Under natural conditions, parents spent over 80% of their time within 20 meters of chicks younger than two weeks (“young chicks”) but 66% or less of their time close to chicks four weeks or older (“old chicks”). Parents of young chicks associated less with the decoy but yodelled and penguin danced more during decoy trials than did parents of old chicks, supporting the conclusion that the parents protected young chicks not by engaging intruders directly but by remaining close to chicks and using vocalization and display to keep intruders at a distance. While these findings lent clear support to the vulnerability hypothesis, the value hypothesis too was supported, as males with two chick broods were almost three times more likely to yodel than males with singleton chicks. Age of parents was not associated with any aspect of chick defense, but the paucity of known aged parents in the oldest age classes makes future investigation of age effects warranted.