In many avian species, a part of the population is present at the breeding grounds but does not breed. Current theories generally assume that floaters are younger or lower-quality individuals, and empirical data confirm this. However, floating could also arise as an alternative strategy to breeding, if floaters are able to reproduce via extra-pair copulations. Until the present study, there has been no evidence that floaters father offspring. We studied a population of tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor), a species with one of the highest levels of extra-pair paternity known in birds. Using microsatellite markers, we determined the biological fathers of 65% of the extra-pair young. Of a total of 53 extra-pair young (52% of all offspring), 47% were fathered by local residents, 6% by residents breeding elsewhere (up to 2 km from the focal grid), and 13% by floaters. Residents seemed to be more successful and they were also more likely to return as territory holders in the next breeding season compared to floaters. Extra-pair males were on average in better condition than the within-pair males they cuckolded. Interestingly, resident males that disappeared (possibly to float) during the fertile period were heavier than males that stayed, and floaters were heavier than residents, but not different in any other characteristic. Although alternative interpretations of the data are possible, we propose that floating might be a conditional strategy in tree swallows whereby males in good condition gain more paternity via extra-pair copulations, whereas males in worse condition are more successful by providing parental care.
Mist nets, traps and monitoring behaviour