|Birds like this Horned Grebe
must balance incubation and foraging needs.
Sitting on a nest may look easy, but it involves more trade-offs
than meet the eye.When birds sit on eggs, they are not simply
relaxing. They are regulating the temperature of the clutch. The
optimal range is 96.8 °F to 104.9 °F (36 °C to 40.5
°C). If egg temperatures drop below the optimal range, embryonic
development slows. Higher temperatures are lethal for the embryo.
Although most people think of incubation as a warming process,
birds may need to cool their eggs by shading or moistening them
in hot environments. For example, one pair of Black-necked Stilts
at southern California's Salton Sea made 155 trips in one day
to soak their belly feathers in water to cool their eggs.
Incubation requires a balance between sitting on the eggs to maintain
their temperature and leaving the nest to refuel by foraging.
Different bird species cope with this conflict in various ways.
Male Emperor Penguins fast for 64 days, living off stored fat
while incubating eggs. In other species, including many gulls,
shorebirds, and songbirds, the male and female take turns incubating
the clutch. Females of many songbirds and hummingbirds incubate
the eggs alone. In some species, such as goldfinches and crossbills,
the male will supplement the female with food while she sits on
the nest. But in other species, the female must leave the eggs
unattended when she goes out to forage. For a hummingbird, that's
at least 140 times each day.
Incubation thus involves a series of trade-offs: a female gains
energy by leaving the nest to forage, but she must expend energy
to rewarm or cool the clutch after returning. The way that birds
allocate their incubation and feeding times can affect reproductive
Recent studies have shown that energy requirements during incubation
are so demanding that they can limit clutch size and therefore the
number of young that a female can produce. Ambient temperatures
may also play a role in determining clutch size and determining
how hard birds must work to keep the eggs at the proper temperature.
Large clutches require more energy to warm, but they also retain
heat better while the female is foraging. Thus, large clutches may
be easier to incubate in cooler environments.
Data from The Birdhouse Network have shown that clutch sizes
of Eastern Bluebirds increase from south to north and from east
to west (Birdscope, Spring 2000). Do incubation constraints factor
in? By collecting data on incubation and ambient temperatures
at Eastern Bluebird nests, participants in our pilot study are
helping us develop protocols for a study investigating the factors
limiting clutch size and reproductive success. Stay tuned.