In altricial birds, the great effort involved in supplying food to nestlings can create trade-offs in the allocation of resources between the current brood and parental self-maintenance. In poor foraging conditions, parents have to adjust their energy expenditure in relation to the increased foraging costs. However, intra-specific variation in parental energy expenditure has rarely been evaluated in the context of these trade-offs. Here, we quantified the daily energy expenditure (DEE) of parent Barn Swallows Hirundo rustica during the nestling period in relation to foraging conditions while controlling for differences in brood size and nestling age. DEE varied substantially with environmental conditions, increasing by 10kJ/day per 5 degrees C in ambient temperature, and by 11kJ/day per hour in day length. Parent birds did not compensate for a poor aerial insect supply on cool days, but reduced their DEE. Parents only slightly buffered a negative energy balance during chick provisioning with stored body reserves. They did not sacrifice their own energy demands to keep up a high energy flow to the brood when foraging conditions were poor. Instead they worked harder when foraging conditions allowed a surplus intake, fully compensating for their additional efforts, and made maximum use of the rich food supply, allowing the brood to accrue body reserves to compensate for low food intake on cold days. This strategy of energy management may have evolved in the context of the adaptation to the aerial foraging mode and to the ephemeral nature of aerial food resources.
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