For these birds, being the middle child is the best way to avoid an early death

K. Spoelstra

For these birds, being the middle child is the best way to avoid an early death

Infanticide—the killing of offspring—is generally rare among birds. And when it happens, it’s usually because of outsiders that want the nesting site or territory. But what happens among birds, such as the greater ani (Crotophaga major, pictured), which have a more socialist approach to nesting? Two to four pairs of the Central and South American cuckoos (which are usually unrelated) build a single nest, and then work together to raise their chicks, which generally hatch at the same time. Intriguingly, the adults cannot recognize either their own eggs or chicks, so they care for all of them. To find out why—and if the simultaneous hatching protects the chicks from infanticide—a scientist analyzed data on nestling mortality gathered at 104 communal greater ani nests from 2006 to 2015. Of the 741 nestlings, 321 (43%) fledged and 420 (57%) died. Most of the deaths (78.5%) were due to predation. But another 13.8%, or 58 nestlings, died from infanticide, the scientist reports online today in Evolution. The remaining 32 (7.7%) died from starvation. At most of the nests, the chicks hatched within 1 day of each other. Those that first emerged from their eggs were the most likely to be dispatched by one of the nest founders, not an outsider. Chicks that hatched last were also unlucky; weaker than their older and larger nest-mates, they weren’t able to compete for food and starved. Those two pressures—infanticide and food competition—end up favoring the chicks in the middle and those that hatch on the same day, the researcher reports.