Monday, October 6, 2014

The Biology of Nagging

A female pied flycatcher can't feed herself sufficiently
while she incubates her eggs and newly-hatched
chicks. Photo by Alejandro Cantarero.
I have been blessed with the fortune of not just having two healthy and happy babies, but being able to spend much of the spring and summer nurturing them and watching them develop and grow. But it has not been all roses: their smiles beam through the fog of my sleep deprivation and exhaustion. Their tears are met with my own. Our clothes are stained in a rainbow of bodily fluids. Now I am back at work trying to remember how my life used to be and how to meet my obligations to countless people, all while trying to keep up with the ever-changing needs of my daughters. Luckily, I am not alone. The girls have a rotating schedule with their grandparents one day, with their dad another, at daycare for a few days, and with me on weekends and evenings. But as the expectations on me grow heavier, I find myself pushing my husband harder to do more with the girls and around the house. Now it seems like every time I open my mouth, I am accused of “being a nag” and “for no reason” no less. The truth is, nagging has a deep biologically-based reason and may even be critical to species survival.

We are not the only species that nags, although in other species these vocalizations are often called “begging signals”. Begging signals are commonly heard in bird species in which the female does most or all of the egg and chick incubation. Because these females cannot sufficiently feed themselves while ensuring the survival of their brood, their male partners need to spend extra time foraging for the females in addition to foraging for the chicks and themselves. There is an inherent conflict between how mated males would prefer to spend their time (feeding themselves, maintaining their dominance status, and flirting with females) and how their female partners want them to spend their time (providing as much as possible for the family). The male response to this conflict is often to see how little he can get away with contributing while he sneaks off to spend his time as he wishes. The female response is to produce loud, juvenile vocalizations and gestures until he brings food to the nest. Is this really necessary though? Maybe she is just being manipulative to try to get him to do more than he really needs to.

Alejandro Cantarero, Jimena López-Arrabé, Antonio Palma, and Juan Moreno from the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid, Spain and Alberto Redondo from the University of Córdoba in Spain set out to test whether the begging signals made by female pied flycatchers were an honest signal of need or were just obnoxious melodrama. They predicted that if the females’ begging calls were an honest reflection of how much help they needed, then begging calls would increase as energy needs increase.

The researchers studied 71 pied flycatcher nests in a forest in central Spain. Behaviors were observed by nest-mounted video cameras five days after the females finished laying their clutches of eggs. Two days later, each female was caught and measured, fitted with an identifying leg band, and had her wings clipped. About half of these females had their primary feathers clipped at the base to impair their ability to fly (these females are called the “handicapped” group). The other half had their primary feathers clipped at the tip so that their ability to fly would not be affected (these are the “control” females). When the females were released, they all returned to their nests. Their behaviors were measured again three days later.

Females in the handicapped group lost weight and begged significantly more after their wings were clipped, whereas the control females did not. This suggests that females are adjusting their begging rates to accurately reflect their needs. Furthermore, male partners of the handicapped females fed their partners more after the wing-clipping, whereas the male partners of the control females did not. This shows that the males are responding to either their partners’ increased begging or increased need or both. Revealingly, the amount that females begged was positively correlated with the amount that the males fed them, even when the researchers statistically controlled for whether their wings were clipped or not. This means that males were feeding females more because they begged more (and not simply because they needed more, which was also true).


This nagging female gets exactly what she needs.
Video by Alejandro Cantarero.

So, at least among pied flycatchers, females don’t “nag for no reason”, but because they genuinely need the help to keep their bodies and families healthy and safe. And males respond to the calls for help by increasing their contributions. But the graph that shows that males feed females more because they beg more also reveals that males would not help enough if females did not beg enough. Nagging is an adaptive strategy that females must engage in to meet the needs of the family.

Is someone nagging you too much? If we are like our pied flycatcher friends, than if you meet that person’s needs, the nagging should stop.

Want to know more? Check this out:

Cantarero, A., López-Arrabé, J., Palma, A., Redondo, A., & Moreno, J. (2014). Males respond to female begging signals of need: a handicapping experiment in the pied flycatcher, Ficedula hypoleuca Animal Behaviour, 94, 167-173 DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2014.05.002

1 comment:

  1. Which begs the question does clipping the wings of captive psittacine increase other negative behaviors like screaming?

    ReplyDelete