The assumption that brood patches identify incubating birds is a pervasive one in avian literature, and as a result, brood patches are often used to infer breeding status. Although the developmental stages of the brood patch with specific reproductive stages in passerines have been described, this information for seabirds is not often reported. Thus, for birds whose breeding activities are not easily observed, it is difficult to confirm (1) that it is valid to assume that a bird which has some stage of brood patch is a nester or putative nester, and (2) whether specific stages of brood patch development reflect specific stages of the breeding cycle. We tested the utility of brood patch scores to infer breeding status in a non-colonial seabird, the Marbled Murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus), a species always captured away from the nest site. We confirmed the breeding status of murrelets with brood patches, and assessed the specific stages of brood patch development to the timing of egg-production (using a physiological analysis) and the onset of incubation (using radio telemetry). Murrelets with brood patches were not always nesters or putative nesters (58% of birds with brood patches were producing eggs, and 56% of radio-tagged birds with brood patches began incubation), and brood patch score did not predict which birds were more likely to become egg-producers or incubators. Specific brood patch stages did not always correlate with specific breeding stages (e.g., the brood patch of egg-producers ranged from absent to fully-developed). Birds with fully developed brood patches took from 3-30 days to start incubation. Brood patch development accurately depicted the average population incubation time, but we caution against using brood patches to predict the timing of an individual breeding attempt, and suggest that when possible, researchers should try to confirm breeding activities using other methods.
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Vol. 26 • No. 1