Manipulating rearing conditions reveals developmental sensitivity in the smaller sex of a passerine bird, the European starling Sturnus vulgaris

Document Type


Publication Date


Publication Title

Journal of Avian Biology





First Page


Last Page





Traditionally, studies of sexually size-dimorphic birds and mammals report that the larger sex is more sensitive to adverse environmental conditions during ontogeny. However, recent studies in avian species that exhibit moderate size-dimorphism indicate that the smaller sex may be more sensitive to poor rearing conditions. To better understand sex-specific sensitivity in a passerine exhibiting moderate size-dimorphism, we examined growth, cell-mediated immunity (CMI) and survival of European starling Sturnus vulgaris nestlings following an experimental reduction of maternal rearing ability (via a feather-clipping manipulation). Contrary to conventional theory, daughters showed reduced growth in both body mass and measures of structural size in response to the maternal treatment. In contrast, sons showed no reductions in any of these traits in relation to the treatment. No sex-specific differences in nestling CMI were found for either group, although CMI of nestlings raised by manipulated mothers were higher than those of control nestlings. Finally, fledging sex ratios did not change from those at hatching indicating that neither sex appeared differentially sensitive to the maternal treatment in terms of mortality. These results reveal that variation in the quality of the rearing environment can have significant effects on the smaller sex of a passerine exhibiting moderate dimorphism and as such support recent studies of species with small-moderate sexual size-dimorphism. Combined results suggest that sex-specific effects of environmental variation on nestling development may be both context- (i.e., brood size, resource level, hatching order) and temporally- (when during development they occur) specific. Furthermore, more studies are needed that examine multiple traits at several developmental stages and then follow the sexes over the longer-term to examine potential effects on fitness.