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Abstract

Studies investigating parent offspring recognition in birds led to the conclusion that offspring recognition is absent at the early nestling stage. Especially male songbirds were often assumed to be unable to discriminate between own and foreign offspring. However, olfactory offspring recognition in birds has not been taken into account as yet, probably because particularly songbirds have for a long time been assumed anosmic. This study aimed to test whether offspring might be recognised via smell. We presented zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata) parents either the odour of their own or that of foreign nestlings and investigated whether the odour presentation resulted in a change in the number of head saccades, i.e. the rapid horizontal turning of the head, with which birds scan their environment and which can be used as a proxy of arousal. Our experiment indicates that male zebra finches, in contrast to females, differentiate between their own and foreign offspring based on odour cues, as indicated by a significant differences in the change of head saccadic movements between males receiving the own chick odour and males receiving the odour of a foreign chick. Thus, it provides behavioural evidence for olfactory offspring recognition in male zebra finches and also the existence of appropriate phenotypic odour cues of the offspring. The question why females do not show any sign of behavioural response remains open, but it might be likely that females use other signatures for offspring recognition.

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