Foraging

Seabirds use preening to decide how to divvy up parenting duties

Common murres
FAMILY AFFAIR Common murres take turns brooding their chick and foraging for fish. Preening each other acts as a health check and way to negotiate parental duties if one bird is in poorer condition, new research suggests.

Seabirds called common murres appear to use preening as a way to negotiate whose turn it is to watch their chick and who must find food. And when one parent is feeling foul, irregularities in this grooming ritual may send the other a signal that all is not well, researchers report in the July issue of The Auk: Ornithological Advances.

“The fascinating part of this study is the inference that communication between mates allows murres to negotiate the level of effort that each member of the pair puts into the breeding effort,” says John Piatt, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Anchorage, Alaska. “Reproductive success of this species requires a high degree of cooperation by each mate as they switch duties.”

Common murres (Uria aalge) lay only one egg each breeding season. Parental roles aren’t determined by gender for the birds; mothers and fathers take turns watching over their chick and foraging for fish. When one parent returns with a fish for the chick, the couple preen each other and switch roles. This swapping ceremony typically happens three to four times a day.

But study coauthor Carolyn Walsh noticed that switches don’t always go smoothly. Video of 16 pairs of murres, documenting a total of 198 role swaps, showed that sometimes both birds appeared indecisive. Each…