Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation


Arts and Sciences



First Advisor

Dr. David F. Westneat


Behavioral traits can be remarkably flexible depending on the conditions in which they are expressed, yet, in spite of this flexibility, persistent differences between individuals appear to limit the potential expression of behaviors. For example, despite evidence that parents provide variable amounts of parental care in response to changing environmental conditions, they also differ in the overall level of care they provide. I used a behavioral reaction norm approach to study individual variation in parental care behavior in free-living house sparrows (Passer domesticus). I investigated the nature of this variation by studying the relationship between different forms of parental care, the biological basis of individual variation in care, and the effect of this variation in care on offspring. First, I found a positive covariance between nestling provisioning and nest defense. Parents that provided high levels of care in one context provided high levels of care in the other context, even after accounting for measures of offspring value. Second, I sought to identify the biological sources that create and maintain consistent individual differences in the level of care a parent provides. I found that the likelihood of feeding nestlings large food items was positively associated with genetic heterozygosity, but did not find evidence that nestling provisioning was influenced by additive genetic variation in this population. Parents hatched from larger eggs provisioned offspring at a higher rate than parents hatched from smaller eggs, but there was no effect of other conditions experienced in the nest on the level of care expressed as an adult. I also tested if differences in problem-solving ability were related to differences in parental care behavior. Although I found that problem-solving parents fledged more offspring than parents that could not solve the problem, parental care was not associated with any measure of problem-solving ability. Finally, I found that individual variation in parental care reaction norms predicted the growth rate, size, and immune response of nestlings, which in turn positively affected offspring survival and recruitment. My findings reveal factors maintaining individual differences in parental care behavior and offer new insights into the causes and consequences of individual variation.