Seabird Parents Communicate How They're Feeling via Preening

A fascinating new study shows how Common Murres coordinate parental duties.

Posted Jul 07, 2017

The more we study nonhuman animals (animals) the more we learn about how sophisticated some of their behavior truly is. In many species it takes both parents to successfully rear their youngsters (called biparental care), and a recent study of seabirds called Common Murres shows how parents use a preening ceremony in which they take turns preening one another to communicate how they're feeling so they can negotiate what needs to be done to provide adequate care for they children. Mutual preening is called allopreening

The original research about this fascinating study was published in a journal called The Auk by Linda Takahashi and her colleagues. Their paper is called "Turn-taking ceremonies in a colonial seabird: Does behavioral variation signal individual condition?" and is available online. The abstract reads:

In species with biparental care, pairs share a cooperative interest in offspring survival but may be in conflict over their relative investments, as reported in recent turn-taking studies of chick-provisioning birds. Turn-taking in Common Murres (Uria aalge) involves the foraging bird returning to the colony to provision the chick and the brooding parent departing. We examined whether Common Murres in poor condition had slower or more irregular turn-taking behavior...Common Murres in better condition (higher body mass and lower lipid metabolite levels) left the colony sooner after their returning mates fed the chick compared to Common Murres in worse condition. ... When birds vary in their turn-taking ceremonial behaviors, they may be negotiating by providing their partners with cues about their condition. Since Common Murres have long-term pair bonds and both parents are necessary to raise offspring, mates should respond to information from their partners if they can do so without compromising their own condition beyond a critical threshold.

Two excellent summaries of this research can be found in an essay called "Seabird parents compensate for struggling partners" and in another by Elizabeth Eaton titled "Seabirds use preening to decide how to divvy up parenting duties." In the first essay we read, "Their [the researchers] results show that these 'nest relief' interactions take longer when one partner is especially low in body mass, suggesting that when brooders withhold preening and stall their departure, they're letting their mates know that they need more time to rest; the returning mate can then compensate by going off to forage again rather than trading places immediately. Similarly, the brooding mate might let a struggling returner take over take over at the nest even if they haven't brought back a fish."

Common Murres lay only one egg each breeding season. Thus, it's essential that the parents do all they can to make sure the egg and youngster survive. Preening ceremonies and swapping duties take place three to four times each day. What's very interesting is that the swaps don't always go smoothly. Ms. Eaton writes, "For about a fifth of all switching ceremonies, the brooding parent was slow to preen its mate and then refused to switch, forcing the parent that had just returned with a fish to go back out and fish some more." When this happens, Carol Walsh, a coauthor on the study, notes, “The brooder is basically communicating, 'The chick still needs a fish, you better go get one.’”

Common Murres aren't built for flying and it takes a lot of energy to fly out to sea and bring food back to needy kids. It's highly likely that during these preening ceremonies and swaps, each parent is communicating their well-being and if one isn't feeling well she/he can stay at the nest and recover. While these birds usually mate for life, it's also known that they can divorce, but that's another story. 

Who'd have thought that preening ceremonies could contain so much information? I was fascinated to read this study and I hope others share my feelings. 

Please stay tuned for how these and other animals negotiate parental behavior when it's vital that youngsters receive the best care possible. This is especially so when only one egg or one youngster is born each year. 

Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson); Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation; Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation; Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence; The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson); and The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce). Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do will be published in early 2018. Learn more at marcbekoff.com.

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