Natural Resources, School of


Date of this Version



Animal Behaviour 82:6 (December 2011), pp. 1275–1285



Copyright © 2011 Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour. Published by Elsevier Ltd. Used by permission.


The variation in breeding colony size seen in populations of most colonial birds may reflect heritable choices made by individuals that are phenotypically specialized for particular social environments. Although a few studies have reported evidence for genetically based choice of group sizes in birds, we know relatively little about the extent to which animals potentially rely on experience versus innate preferences in deciding how many conspecifics to settle with at different times of their lives. We conducted a cross-fostering experiment in 1997–1998 on cliff swallows, Petrochelidon pyrrhonota, in southwestern Nebraska, USA, in which some individuals were reared in colonies that differed in size from those in which they were born. Breeding colony sizes chosen by this cohort of birds were monitored by mark-recapture throughout their lives. A multistate mark-recapture analysis revealed that birds in their first breeding year chose colony sizes similar to those of their birth, regardless of their rearing environment, confirming a previous analysis. Beyond the first breeding year, however, cliff swallows’ choice of colony size was less dependent on the size of the colony in which they were born. Birds born in small colonies and reared in large colonies showed evidence of a delayed rearing effect, with these birds overwhelmingly choosing large colonies in later years. Heritabilities suggested strong genetic effects on colony choice in the first year but not in later years. Cliff swallows’ genetically based colony size preferences their first year could be a way to ensure matching of their phenotype to an appropriate social environment as yearlings. In later years, familiarity with particular colony sites and available information on site quality may override innate group size preferences when birds choose colonies.