New Zealand Journal of Ecology (2005) 29(2): 231- 242

Factors influencing mate guarding and territory defence in the stitchbird (hihi) Notiomystis cincta

Research Article
Matthew Low  
  1. Ecology Group, Massey University, Private Bag 11 222, Palmerston North, New Zealand

Socially monogamous male birds are predicted to maximise their reproductive success by pursuing extra-pair copulations (EPCs) while engaging in anti-cuckoldry behaviour such as mate guarding. In the stitchbird, Notiomystis cincta, high levels of forced EPCs and a high proportion of nestlings resulting from extra- pair fertilisations lead to the prediction that males of this species should exhibit intense paternity guarding behaviours. While studying an isolated stitchbird population on Tiritiri Matangi Island New Zealand (3636'S, 17453'E), I collected daily behavioural data throughout the breeding season from 15 males in 2000/01 and 27 males in 2001/02. In this study, male stitchbirds demonstrated clear paternity guarding by exhibiting: (1) an increased likelihood of being close to their mate during her fertile period, (2) an increased initiation of mate contact during her fertile period, (3) switching from site-specific territorial defence during the pre-fertile period to defending an area centring on the their female partners location during her fertile period, and (4) an increased following of the female to communal feeding sites outside the territory during her fertile period. For polygynous males, mate guarding and territorial defence were conditional on which of their females was fertile. Additional evidence supporting the hypothesis that mate guarding in this species is a form of paternity assurance, rather than protection from harassment, is that males protected their partner from harassment by other stitchbird males but did not intervene when females were harassed by male bellbirds, Anthornis melanura. While mate-guarding intensity in many species is conditional on the stage of female fertility, male stitchbirds also modified their behaviour depending on the location of the female and the rate of intrusions by extra-pair males. Resident males adopted a best-of-a-bad-job tactic when they were unable to locate their female by defending an area around her last known location. Furthermore, when the rate of intrusions by extra-pair males increased they traded-off the area they could defend within their territory against their ability to guard the female. Territory takeovers were uncommon, but when they did occur older males displaced younger males and healthy birds displaced sick ones. Contrary to the prevailing view that mate guarding is a male response to female infidelity, male stitchbirds appear to use mate guarding primarily to prevent paternity losses from forced EPCs. Future assessments of mate guarding function should consider the possibility that mate guarding involves a combination of conflict and co-operation between the sexes.