Hatching date vs laying date: what should we look at to study avian optimal timing of reproduction?

Gustavo Tomás

Published online: 
8 September 2014

Most research conducted on optimal timing of reproduction in birds has traditionally considered laying date of the first egg as the event that needs to be related to the time of maximum food availability. However, what (most) birds need to time with the seasonal peak of food availability is the moment of maximum food demand of their nestlings, which is more tightly related with hatching date than with laying date. After initiating egg laying, birds still have some opportunities to adjust the time of highest food demand, as during the several days elapsed between laying of the first egg until hatching, more precise cues will become available to birds in order to make a more accurate match with food availability. I provide an overview of the suite of mechanisms available to birds for shortening or enlarging the interval between laying and hatching date, which include laying gaps, adjustment of clutch size, variation in onset and intensity of incubation, and differential investment on eggs. Then I illustrate with an example the extent to which birds can adjust hatching dates after egg laying. I argue that birds should more accurately time hatching date rather than laying date to maximum food availability on the basis of available cues. Therefore, I suggest that researchers should target on hatching date rather than laying date to better study optimal timing of reproduction in birds. Exploration of responses other than adjusting laying date to changing environmental conditions will surely uncover key aspects of avian reproductive biology and behaviour that have been ignored until now. This is a necessary step towards a better understanding of capacities of organisms to adapt to a changing world in particular, and of fitness consequences of timing of reproduction in general.