The timing of birds' breeding seasons: a review of experiments that manipulated timing of breeding

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Reproductive success usually declines in the course of the season, which may be a direct effect of breeding time, an effect of quality (individuals with high phenotypic or environmental quality breeding early), or a combination of the two. Being able to distinguish between these possibilities is crucial when trying to understand individual variation in annual routines, for instance when to breed, moult and migrate. We review experiments with free-living birds performed to distinguish between the 'timing' and 'quality' hypothesis. 'Clean' manipulation of breeding time seems impossible, and we therefore discuss strong and weak points of different manipulation techniques. We find that the qualitative results were independent of manipulation technique (inducing replacement clutches versus cross-fostering early and late clutches). Given that the two techniques differ strongly in demands made on the birds, this suggests that potential experimental biases are limited. Overall, the evidence indicated that date and quality are both important, depending on fitness component and species, although evidence for the date hypothesis was found more frequently. We expected both effects to be prevalent, since only if date per se is important, does an incentive exist for high-quality birds to breed early. We discuss mechanisms mediating the seasonal decline in reproductive success, and distinguish between effects of absolute date and relative date, for instance timing relative to seasonal environmental fluctuations or conspecifics. The latter is important at least in some cases, suggesting that the optimal breeding time may be frequency dependent, but this has been little studied. A recurring pattern among cross-fostering studies was that delay experiments provided evidence for the quality hypothesis, while advance experiments provided evidence for the date hypothesis. This indicates that late pairs are constrained from producing a clutch earlier in the season, presumably by the fitness costs this would entail. This provides us with a paradox: evidence for the date hypothesis leads us to conclude that quality is important for the ability to breed early.


Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Biological Sciences


  • life-history evolution, clutch size, lay date, hatch date
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)399-410
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1490
Publication statusPublished - 2008
Publication categoryResearch