Readers’ wildlife photos (and science post!)

January 22, 2018 • 7:45 am

Bruce Lyon, our professor of ecology and evolution at the University of California at Santa Cruz, has sent another installment in his continuing and engrossing series on coots. This counts not only as a photography post, but as a science post, so be sure to read his text (indented), which describes experiments to figure out why the chicks look so damn weird!


Coot soap opera VI: Tacky colorful coot chicks

Here is one final installment about our work with American coots, Fulica americana (previous posts are herehereherehere, and here). This installment is about the bizarrely ornamented chicks.

The following scene should be familiar to anybody who watches nature shows on TV: a colorful highly ornamented bird bows and displays to some duller individuals watching intently. Typically this description would describe a mating display, where males display to attract females. However, the scene also describes family life in coots, where highly ornamented chicks display to their rather plain parents.

My first encounter with a baby chick was rather shocking because baby birds are not supposed to look like these do. Working on a duck research project in in central British Columbia near the town of 150 Mile House, I heard sounds I did not recognize coming from the reeds in a small wetland, so I waded in to find the source. The noise was coming from a baby American coot floating in the water—an orange monstrosity unlike any baby bird I had every seen. The chick, just out of the egg, was covered in fluorescent orange plumes, a naked orange top of the head, blue eye shadow and bright red nubbins around the eyes.

Below: a highly ornamented coot chick displays to its parent.

Below: A photo of three baby coots lined up on a rock waiting to be tagged. The word extraordinary is often overused, but I think it applies to these chicks.
Below: Left. Close up of a baby coot’s face—note the funky red nubbins on the face near the beak. Right: Similar facial nubbins are found on male ruffs (Calidris pugnax), which is interesting because this sandpiper has a lek mating system. A lek is where groups of males gather in a mating arena and display to attract female. Lek mating systems often have extreme sexual selection and highly ornamented males, like ruffs or birds of paradise. We expect extreme ornaments on males in lekking species, not in baby birds.
Below: These two herring gull (Larus argentatus) chicks show what self-respecting baby birds are supposed to look like—these chicks are doing their best to resemble a rock. Baby birds are tasty and helpless, so camouflage makes sense. 

At least to the human eye, coot chicks are anything but cryptic with their crazy ornamentation and doodads. Ornamental plumage in birds is typically associated with sexual selection; in fact bird ornamentation played a key role in motivating Darwin’s sexual selection theory (three chapters of his sexual selection book were devoted to birds). He proposed that the ornamental traits are evolutionarily favored because they increase mating success (typically but not always in males), either because females prefer ornamented males or because the ornamentation helps males win fights over access to females or resources females like. Clearly this explanation does not apply to a baby coot fresh out of the egg.

Right after my first coot chick encounter, I described the bizarre chick to my friend John Eadie (now a professor at the University of California Davis) over dinner at the field house. As nerds often do, we couldn’t help brainstorming about possible explanations for the bizarre plumage. John suddenly remembered an idea by Mary Jane West-Eberhard that seemed like a perfect explanation: parental choice theory. This idea was part of West Eberhart’s broader social selection theory, theory that sought to expand aspects of Darwin’s sexual selection ideas to contexts beyond mating. West Eberhard, an evolutionary biologist who specializes on social insects, noted that mechanisms of choice and social competition occur in a variety of contexts beyond mating, and these mechanisms could in theory lead to the same types of traits produced by sexual selection. Her parental choice idea is analogous to mate choice, except that the choosy individuals are parents rather than individuals seeking mates, and the parents’ preference is for characteristics of offspring, not mates. The idea is simple: in species where parental food is essential for offspring survival, ornamented offspring might evolve if parents control food allocation among their offspring and happen to prefer to feed more ornamented offspring over less ornamented offspring. The assumptions of this theory apply to coots perfectly: as discussed in previous posts, parent coots use aggression to control which chicks are fed and food is so critical to chick survival that many chicks die because they are not fed enough. Eadie and I did not get around to testing these ideas until after I had done my PhD work on the coots, which was good because my PhD work allowed me to figure out the field methods needed for studying coot parental behavior.

Below: Ornamental coot chick feathers up close. The feather structure enabled an easy way to experimentally alter chick plumage: simply removes the orange feather tips. The ornamented body feathers have two parts: a black base with the normally downy feather structure that provides warmth to the chick and a naked orange shaft that extends beyond the down. Cutting the tip removes the color but not the fluff. The little red blobs in the upper left are the red facial nubbins—these are highly modified, have no down and are too small to be modified by trimming tips.

Below. It’s “haircut” time!  To test if parent coots have a preference for ornamented chicks we experimentally dulled half of the chicks in each brood by trimming the orange tips from their body feathers.  (In a later study we used electric trimmers, much faster than scissors.) The facial nubbins were left as is.
Below: In each brood, we alternated the trimmed and untrimmed chicks with hatching order because hatching order is such a strong determinant of survival within broods. A coin toss determined whether the first chick to hatch would be trimmed or not, and we then alternated the two treatments as the chicks hatched.  As this photo of an untrimmed and trimmed chick shows, trimming dramatically reduces the ornamentation and appearance of a  chick. Trimmed chicks are, however, still cute and fuzzy!
Below: Interestingly, most rails, including some species of coots, have plain black chicks so our experiments created an appearance that is not completely novel for coots and other rails generally. Moreover, a rail phylogeny shows that chick ornamentation is a derived trait (i.e., evolved more recently), so trimming chicks recreates an ancestral feature. Photo of a water rail (Rallus aquaticus) chick from Europe (photo Gunnar Pettersson):
Below: A cartoon that I use in seminars shows the key results of the experiment. Within broods, the ornamented chicks were fed far more, grew more rapidly and had much higher survival than their non-ornamented siblings. Our experiment confirmed a key aspect of West-Eberhart’s idea: coot parents have a strong preference for highly ornamented chicks and, in an experimental setting at least, this preference has a big impact on the survival of the ornamented chicks. Ethical note: on average, 50% of the chicks in natural broods die of starvation and our experiments did not increase chick mortality but simply altered which chicks lived or died.

As an aside, ornithologists normally capture chicks to weigh for growth rate data. We could not do that because within a day of hatching coot chicks are too damn good at hiding and are almost impossible to catch. I therefore developed a method of photographing recognizable individual chicks (based on their tags) from a floating blind while at the same time accurately determining the distance between the chick and camera (I turned my telephoto lens into a range finder). When photo distance is known, one can convert an object’s relative size in a photo to its actual size, using conversion factors obtained from reference photographs of known sized objects photographed at known distances. I was able to test the accuracy of this method because I raised a bunch of coot chicks in captivity and photographed chicks of known mass while they swam in a kiddie pool. The photo method turns out to be very accurate and we use it in all of our coot studies.

Below: Astute readers may realize that our experimental results could be explained by something other that parental preference for chick ornamentation. Maybe parent coots did not recognize the trimmed chicks as their own chicks, or even as coot chicks at all. Or perhaps, counter to what I claimed above, maybe trimming does actually affect chick survival by reducing their ability to keep warm or dry. Fortunately, a chance discussion with a colleague highlighted this concern before we did the study and prompted me to think about a sham control treatment that could test for the effects of trimming itself. We created two types of control broods: broods where all chicks were trimmed and broods where none of the chicks were trimmed. We found that there were no differences between these two brood types in anything we measured: average feeding rates, chick growth or survival. This shows that trimming feathers per se does not affect chick success; it only matters when parents have both ornamented and unornamented chicks to choose between. The photo below shows an all-trimmed control brood: note that none of these chicks have much color, despite being very young.

Our experiment showed that parent coots prefer ornamented chicks, but this then raises the question as to why parents have this preference in the first place. This question is much harder to answer than simply showing that they have a preference, but more recent studies I did on patterns of natural color variation suggest some possibilities (done with Dai Shizuka, my PhD student at the time). First, we looked at whether brood-parasitic chicks are more colorful than non-parasitic chicks—but in fact they are less colorful. Second, in addition to their colorful plumage, coots have bald heads that can change color fairly quickly from dull to bright and it may be that this skin color conveys useful information to the parents, for example reliable information about chick hunger or body temperature. If parents evolved a preference for feeding chicks with particularly colorful naked heads, this preference could then favor the evolution of chick traits that amplify the head signal: perhaps plumage color is a dazzle trait that mimics the brightest color of the naked head. Finally, another possibility is suggested by our discovery that within broods, later-hatched chicks tend to be more colorful (redder) than early-hatched ones. As I described in a previous post, when parents eventually take control of food allocation, they divide the brood and the parents specialize on feeding the youngest remaining chicks alive. Perhaps the orange coloration is an honest signal of chick age or size that helps the parents identify the smallest or youngest chicks still alive.

Below. A composite photo showing the plumage color and pattern of chicks of four different ages. The fluorescent orange plumage could be an honest signal of size (or age) because once the chicks hatch, they do not grow any new orange feathers. Given this, their coloration must dull as the chick grows and the orange feathers become more thinly spread over an increasingly larger surface area. Big chicks cannot lie about their size! It also seems that the feathers dull and fall out with age.

53 thoughts on “Readers’ wildlife photos (and science post!)

  1. Fascinating! I wonder how the behavior of preferring the ornamented chicks is wired in parents. May be those studies would be more tractable in other model organisms.

    I’ll mention this post in my genetics class, as the experiments are very well-thought out and well-controlled, along with some very cool results. Plus, cute pics are always sure to pique interest in students!

    1. Thanks very much. In case you are interested the National Center for Case Study in Science worked up something to use this study to teach science (I was not involved in that project and found out about it after it was done). Here is a link to the pdf of what they put together. (sorry, but not sure how to embed a hyperlink in the comments):

  2. Very complex life in the Coot saga. Eggs in other’s nest and now color. Life in this world is not guaranteed.

  3. Very nice! However, is it not just signal selection/handicap principle as developed by Zahavi?

    Is there a cost – are the colourful chicks more vulnerable to hawks for example? Would that type of predator be deterred by your presence as humans, thus skewing the results to favour the bright chicks? If all chick are born as bright as each other, surely there may be other factors involved?

    Consider running the experiment with rails that usually have black chicks.
    Consider adding extra yellow or dying chicks completely yellow/red.

    Not sure I could do that – make the decision to trim chicks thus condemning them to early death…!

    1. Signal selection is way too general an explanation because there are tons of mechanisms that fall under this umbrella. Zahavi’s honest signal idea is certainly one possibility (i.e. only the best quality chicks can afford to grow the most colorful plumage). This one is hard to test but our patterns suggest that something more nuanced is probably going on. Our observation that natural variation within brood correlates with hatching order means that mom is playing a role in the variation (maternal effect). This fits with the biology because egg size also varies with hatching order (mom controls investment in each egg). Other researchers have shown that coot egg yolks have the highest concentration of carotenoid pigments of any bird. Vertebrates cannot synthesize carotenoid pigments and must get them from their diet(which is why human parents tell their kids to eat their carrots!). A mother coot somehow controls how much carotenoid to put in each egg so she is pretty much determining a chick’s oolor. This makes us think that the chick color may serve mom’s interest.

      In a comment below you where the paper was published: Lyon, B.E. et al 1994. Parental preference selects for ornamental plumage in American coot chicks. Nature 371: 240-243. PDF can be downloaded from the publication page of my website (Google Lyon Lab)

    2. I think Zahavi’s principle applies only to mate choice situations where females adaptively evolve to prefer males that, despite their extravagant ornamentation, have been quick and wary enough to avoid predation and find enough food to sustain their ornaments. Females that prefer them get sons that tend to be quick, wary, and sexy, and that are good at finding food and get daughters that (tend to) share all these traits less the sexy masculine handicapping ornaments.

      1. In animal textbooks the handicap principle is often restricted to mating but Zahavi himself broadened it to deal with other contexts. Part of the problem was that Zahavi was often unclear and confusing about what he was talking about. I prefer the term honest signal to handicap and it is clear that honest signals (i.e. unfakeable by design) occur in lots of different contexts.

  4. Interesting stuff.

    Does crying perform a similar function in human babies?

    Getting ethical clearance for that experiment might be a bit trickier.

      1. Perhaps crying only evolved in humans after predation was no longer a significant cause of death. Actually, it is not really the crying (tears) but the bawling that often accompanies it.

        I also wonder if the coot chicks’ coloring also means that chick predation is not significant relative to other birds’ chicks.

  5. Great post.Good example of experiment design and scientific methodology. Can’t wait for other “ways of knowing” to weigh in.

  6. Very interesting! I had not heard about this explanation of the coot chick colors before, but it makes good sense.
    Many nesting chicks have brightly colored mouths that show well when they gape & beg for food. This induces parents to feed the chicks. So here it looks like we see an extreme form of this character.

  7. Very interesting. I like having a glimpse into the thought processes scientists bring to bear to make the power of their experiments greater and make the results less ambiguous.


  8. This is such a fascinating post. Thank you for all the details and photos explaining this coot behavior.

  9. Really enjoy reading about the clever ways scientists figure these things out. At university in the 80s the pub scene then pretty much seemed to parallel a lek mating arena, only slightly more nuanced.

  10. Fascinating study, great photos and narrative.
    Would it be possible to save all the orange feather tip trimmings (lottery winnings!) and glue them to the tips of drab baby coots, and see what happens? Would all the babies thrive; would the parents be ‘forced’ to resort to other methods of discrimination, in the event of a food shortage?

  11. Fascinating to be sure. It strikes me how the logical analysis of observations to create hypotheses and experimental design in many ways mimic the ordinary, household, thinking we all use in, for example, figuring out what to do about a leaky faucet. On the other hand the ability to do this well and the association of the scientific method with important problem solving, eg. global warming, etc., tells me that not all that many of our fellow citizens are up to the challenge. Sad.

    1. Absolutely. I try to make this point in my teaching. In his textbook on Animal Behavior, John Alcock has used the radio show Car Talk to make this same point. The method that Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers, use to figure out what is wrong with the caller’s car overlaps a ton with the way that scientists work.

    1. They nest in low numbers in Santa Cruz county. At Westlake Pond near my house coots often nest, but only once have I seen a full grown chick. I think predatory fish may be the reason and one time I saw a freshly hatched chick, pointed it out to my wife, and ten seconds later one of bass the pond is stocked with grabbed the chick and munched it. The pond also has a pair of pied-billed grebes on it and they always raise lots of chicks. Unlike coots, grebes carry their babies on their back and that may protect them from bass predation.

  12. Very interesting, thanks for sharing, Dr. Lyon. It would be interesting if you could enhance the ornamentation on some chicks, instead of merely reducing it, to see if such enhanced chicks might get an increase in investment from parents.

  13. I loved all these coot posts. Very interesting, and you have a great way of writing them to make them even more so. Thanks you for sharing them!

  14. All your coot posts have been well-written, engaging and educating. Thanks for spending the time distilling your scientific experiments and discoveries. That’s a clever trick measuring the chicks’ sizes using a camera. I hope we’ll see some more coot posts in the future…assuming you still have experiments to perform.

    1. Thanks Mark. I do have some more coot stories to share but they are about South American coots and the coots are supporting cast rather than the star in a leading role. We studied a parasitic duck that mostly lays it eggs in the nests of two coot species. Coming soon to a website near you that is not a blog.

  15. Why do parents prefer ornamented chicks? Perhaps ornamentation is costly and acts as a signal of superior health? Perhaps ornamented chicks are more conspicuous which elicits greater parental attention?

    I really don’t know, but I want PCC to know that I am reading the science posts.

    1. There is theory on this and coots seem to fit (but critical tests have not been done(. In theory, if resources needed to feed kids cannot be perfectly predicted when the birds lay eggs, they might lay an optimistic clutch size for the best possible conditions and then cull when reality hits a month later when the eggs hatch. Eggs seem very cheap for coots to produce and they are pretty good at culling chicks soon after they hatch. This combination might favor the sort of waste we see. Some families do win the lottery and raise most or all of their chicks; some losers raise almost none of the chicks that hatch. Seems that coots cannot predict food for chicks very well.

  16. One of your most memorable posts on evolution. For me, presented a mechanism I hadn’t thought of, but that seems obvious in retrospect; viz, parental selection — alongside natural selection and sexual selection (as well as drift.)

    Great article, great research.

Leave a Reply