Benefits of extra food to reproduction depend on maternal condition

17 January 2019

Podofillini, Stefano; Cecere, Jacopo; Griggio, Matteo; Corti, Margherita; De Capua, Enrico; Parolini, Marco; Saino, Nicola; Serra, L.; Rubolini, D.

The amount of food resources available to upper-level consumers can show marked variations in time and space, potentially resulting in food limitation. The availability of food resources during reproduction is a key factor modulating variation in reproductive success and life-history trade-offs, including patterns of resource allocation to reproduction vs. self-maintenance, ultimately impacting on population dynamics. Food provisioning experiments constitute a popular approach to assess the importance of food limitation for vertebrate reproduction. In this study of a mesopredatory avian species, the lesser kestrel (Falco naumanni), we provided extra food to breeding individuals from egg laying to early nestling rearing. Extra food did not significantly affect adult body condition or oxidative status. However, it increased the allocation of resources to flight feathers moult and induced females to lay heavier eggs. Concomitantly, it alleviated the costs of laying heavier eggs for females in poor body condition, and reduced their chances of nest desertion (implying complete reproductive failure). Extra food provisioning improved early nestling growth (body mass and feather development). Moreover, extra food significantly reduced the negative effects of ectoparasites on nestling body mass, while fostering forearm (a flight apparatus trait) growth among highly parasitized nestlings. Our results indicate that lesser kestrels invested the extra food mainly to improve current reproduction, suggesting that population growth in this species can be limited by food availability during the breeding season. In addition, extra food provisioning reduced the costs of the moult-breeding overlap and affected early growth trade-offs by mitigating detrimental ectoparasite effects on growth and enhancing development of the flight apparatus with high levels of parasitism. Importantly, our findings suggest that maternal condition is a major trait modulating the benefits of extra food to reproduction, whereby such benefits mostly accrue to low-quality females with poor body condition.