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Struggling for power: Canary chicks and their mothers

Canary provisioning young.
[Image courtesy of Fernando Trabanco]

Recently, a group of researchers explored how parents and their offspring communicate with each other—before and after the offspring's birth—and now, their results are shedding light on the complicated give-and-take relationship between a mother bird and her chick.

The study focused on canary mothers, who sacrifice much of their own wellbeing for the sake of their chicks, and the chicks, who shout and beg for as much food as they can get. In their report, the researchers describe a delicate balance between begging and feeding that helps to explain how canaries produce the healthiest and most numerous offspring.

Canary chick begging.
[Image courtesy of Fernando Trabanco]

Camilla Hinde and colleagues swapped the eggs of canary parents, which scrambled the genetic messages (motherly hormones in the egg) to the offspring. Then, the researchers observed the relationship between the begging newborn chicks and their new "foster" mothers.

They found that mothers raising "foster" chicks who wanted less food than their own chicks were able to lay more eggs the following year, but mothers caring for "foster" chicks that begged for more than their own chicks produced fewer eggs the next year. Nonetheless, Hinde and her team of researchers saw that the mother canaries still controlled the feeding, no matter how much the young chicks begged.

This unique combination of theories and experiments clearly demonstrates that a chick's begging provides their mothers with valuable information about the offspring's condition, while the hormones inside the egg can inform the unborn chicks about how much food they will receive after birth.