Avian reproductive strategies have been hypothesized to vary with elevation. Shorter breeding seasons due to harsh environmental conditions, and potentially higher predation risks, may reduce clutch sizes at higher elevations, which in some species leads to increased parental care and offspring survival. However, this phenotypically plastic and potentially adaptive response has been documented only in a handful of species in the Northern Hemisphere. For the first time in a southern temperate ecosystem, we studied whether the breeding strategy of a secondary cavity-nester varied along an elevational gradient in Andean temperate forests, Chile. We installed 240 nest-boxes at 260–1,115 m elevation and monitored the breeding activity of 162 nests of Thorn-tailed Rayaditos (Aphrastura spinicauda) over 2 seasons (2010–2012). We included 50 nests from a third season only for recording clutch size and nestlings per clutch. As predicted, the breeding season was shorter in highland forests than in lower elevations, by 28% and 55% over the 2 successive seasons. Although timing of egg laying (1 egg every second day) and incubation period (average = 15 days) did not vary with elevation, we found smaller clutch sizes (average = 4.1 vs. 4.5) and fewer nestlings per clutch (average = 3.5 vs. 4.2) at higher elevations. The extent of parental care, expressed as the duration of the nestling period, was slightly but significantly greater in highland than in lowland forests (22.2 vs. 21.6 days). Despite the longer nestling period at higher elevations, nesting success was lower at high elevations, mainly because of nest predation. Our findings suggest that Thorn-tailed Rayaditos may change to a slower reproductive strategy along elevational gradients. Yet these changes do not appear to compensate for the increased predation rates at higher elevations, calling into question the potential adaptive significance of this strategy.
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Vol. 132 • No. 4