We used an automated radiotelemetry system to determine diurnal patterns of activity and temporal phenotype (onset and cessation of activity) in female European starlings during breeding. Parental care is thought to be the most 'costly' part of reproduction, with high rates of intense activity due to foraging and provisioning for chicks, so we predicted that variation in timing of activity should be closely related to breeding success. Diurnal variation in activity varied systematically with breeding stage in a way consistent with specific demands of each phase of parental care: incubating females were more active late in the day (1600–1800 hours), while chick-rearing females were more active early in the morning (0700–1100 hours). There was marked individual variation in timing of onset, and to a lesser extent cessation, of activity, e.g. chick-rearing females first became active 7–127 min after morning civil twilight, with low to moderate repeatability within and among breeding stages (individual explained 2–62% of total variation). On average, females were active later, and ceased being active earlier, during chick rearing compared with incubation. Chick-rearing birds had a longer active day, but only by 2.3% (36% of the seasonal increase in total available daylength). Thus, chick-rearing females were relatively less active ('lazier'), which is consistent with the idea that parents work more efficiently rather than simply working harder. We found little evidence that chick-rearing activity was associated with variation in measures of current reproduction (provisioning rate, number and quality of chicks), future fecundity (initiating a second brood, cumulative 2-year productivity) or survival (local return rate). Our study demonstrates that time-keeping mechanisms show plasticity in response to reproductive state and can be modulated by 'biotic' (e.g. prey availability) or 'social' time (demands of parental care).
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