The begging of nestling birds is known to reliably signal short-term nutritional need, which is used by parents to adjust rates of food delivery and patterns of food distribution within broods. To test whether begging signals reflect more than just short-term feeding history, we experimentally created 18 "small" (4-nestling) and 18 "large" (8-nestling) broods in the pied flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca). Compared to small broods, large broods were provisioned by parents at a greater rate, but at a lower visit rate per nestling and with no obvious differences in load mass per visit. However, lower rates of food mass delivery per nestling in large broods did not result in any measurable reduction in nestling growth (i.e. "long-term need") or in any increase in the begging effort per individual nestling whilst in the nest. Mid-way through the nestling period we also used hand-feeding laboratory trials to assess in more detail individual begging behaviour and digestive performance of the three mid-ranking nestlings from each brood. More food items were required at the start of each trial to satiate nestlings from large broods, but despite this initial control for "short-term need", nestlings from large broods went on to beg at consistently higher rates and at different acoustic frequencies. Large brood nestlings also produced smaller faecal sacs, which were quantitatively different in content but did not differ in frequency. We suggest that different nutritional histories can produce cryptic changes in nestling digestive function, and that these can lead to important differences in begging signals despite controlling for short term need.
Wright, J., Hinde, C., Fazey, I., & Both, C. (2002). Begging signals more than just short-term need: cryptic effects of brood size in the pied flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca). Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 52(1), 74-83. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00265-002-0478-y