Raptors are known for asymmetric parental roles, with the female brooding and feeding offspring, and the male providing food, usually assisted by the female from the latter part of the rearing period. Yet, the evolution of this role asymmetry is poorly understood. From filming prey delivery and handling in 61 nests of 9 raptor species, we show that the female role is related to prey size and prey type. Within species, nestlings were less likely to ingest larger prey unassisted, independent of increasing ability of unassisted feeding with increasing age. Feeding time increased with prey size and was longer for avian than for mammalian prey of the same size when nestlings fed unassisted. Across species, the female partitioned prey and fed offspring for a longer portion of the rearing period as prey size increased and as the diet contained more birds. Providing for the family selects for small body size; hence, extended female confinement as sedentary food processor for offspring would leave greater potential for differential selection on male and female body size. This may explain the female-biased size dimorphism among raptors, which becomes larger as diet changes from insects via reptiles and mammals to birds and as relative prey size increases. Symmetric parental roles and no female-biased size dimorphism would be expected in birds providing insects or other food that nestlings swallow without maternal assistance. Prey type and prey size would be important also for sexual conflicts and evolution of polygamy and mate desertion in birds providing for offspring.
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