Kleptoparasitism (food theft) is a tactic used opportunistically by many foraging birds, but little is known about its fitness benefits. Here we show that habitual kleptoparasitism by individual parent roseate terns (Sterna dougallii) is associated with consistently superior reproductive performance relative to nonkleptoparasitic ("honest") parents, as measured by growth and survival to fledging among their offspring. In broods of two, both chicks of kleptoparasitic parents exhibited superior growth performance during the middle and later stages of the rearing period, relative to chicks of honest parents. This difference was especially pronounced in second-hatched chicks, whose survival is highly variable among years and dependent on food availability. Over a 10-year period, average productivity (number of chicks fledged per pair) was significantly higher among kleptoparasites than among honest parents, with a larger relative difference during years of food shortage. Our study indicates that kleptoparasitism in roseate terns is an important component of parental quality and provides the first evidence that food stealing is associated with enhanced fitness in a facultatively kleptoparasitic seabird.
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