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Southern Pied Babblers

The male southern pied babbler, an African bird that lives in the desert has been shown to favour his biological sons and alienate his stepsons.

The black and white babblers, which are found in dry savannah of Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe, live in groups that range in size from three to fourteen birds and both parents as well as other adult birds raise the chicks.

Co-operative behaviour includes provisioning young, both in the nest and when they have fledged, sentinel behaviour, territory border defence, teaching behaviour and babysitting behaviour.

Southern pied babblers can be quite aggressive towards fledglings with begging chicks punished by the parents jumping on them for example.

The group’s dominant male bird appears to decide which of the subordinate males to tolerate in the group and the research published in Biological Letters shows that subordinate male birds spend less time in a group if they are unrelated to the dominant male bird.

Dr. Martha Nelson-Flower, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia's faculty of forestry but formerly of the University of Cape Town, where she conducted the research, said “Nepotism has likely played a vital role in the evolution of family life in this species.”

The subordinate male birds are essentially pushed out the group by their stepfathers, or, in some cases, by their brothers-in-law. They are then forced to join other groups as subordinates or live alone.

Over the course of five years, each summer, Dr Nelson-Flower observed 45 different groups of southern pied babblers in the Kalahari Desert, walking around with the birds at dawn and dusk.

She also used data collected by her co-author, Amanda Ridley, of the University of Western Australia. Together, the researches analyzed data from 11 years of observation.

They found that the preferential treatment seen in the male birds was not observed in the females.

"The research is some of the first to show that the sex of both dominant and subordinate birds, and the genetic relationship between them, has a significant impact on their family groups and cooperative breeding behaviour," added Nelson-Flower.

Previous studies on the southern pied babbler had shown negative outcomes for birds that live alone for longer periods, including a decreased likelihood of attaining dominance in another group and increased weight loss.

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