There is mounting evidence in a variety of taxa that females increase offspring quality by mating with multiple males, often resulting in multiple paternity. In birds, however, few studies have explicitly examined the benefits of mating with several different males; instead, the focus has been on whether or not extra-pair mating occurs, and its adaptive significance remains controversial. We examined the hypothesis that offspring quality, particularly immune response (phytohaemagglutinin assay) and growth, increases with the number of sires in broods of socially monogamous tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor). We found one of the highest known levels of multiple paternity in birds (84% of nests with two or more extra-pair young had at least two extra-pair sires). Among nests with extra-pair young, the number and diversity of sires continued to increase linearly with the number of extra-pair young, so there was no evidence that some males monopolized paternity at high levels of extra-pair fertilization. Indeed, the number of sires was actually greater than expected in large broods, suggesting that some females might be seeking more mates. We found no effect of the number of sires on nestling immune response or growth. In mixed paternity broods, the immune response of extra-pair young did not differ from that of their within-pair half-siblings. However, among all broods, nestlings had a stronger immune response in nests with at least one extra-pair nestling than in nests with all within-pair nestlings. These results are not consistent with a good genes benefit of extra-pair mating, but they do suggest that there are environmental effects associated with extra-pair mating that increase nestling immune response. These environmental effects could produce indirect genetic effects on sexual selection if they are heritable. The extraordinarily high number of sires in this species highlights a relatively unexplored source of sexual selection in birds. © 2009 Springer-Verlag.
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