Many organisms rely on environmental cues to predict and anticipate the annual optimal timing of reproduction. In insectivorous birds, preparation for breeding often coincides with the time vegetation starts to develop in spring. Whether there is a direct relationship between the two, and through which mechanisms this link could come about, has rarely been investigated. Plants release herbivore-induced plant volatiles (HIPVs) when they are attacked by insects, and recent studies have shown that birds can detect and orient to those odours when searching for food. Whether those volatiles also stimulate sexual reproductive development and timing of reproduction remains to be discovered. We tested this hypothesis by monitoring gonadal growth in pairs of blue tits (Cyanistes caeruleus) exposed to air from caterpillar-infested oak trees or from a control, in spring. We found that while males and females grew their gonads over time, gonads grew at the same rate in both odour treatments. More exploratory (i.e. a proxy of personality) females did, however, have larger ovarian follicle sizes when exposed to the HIPVs than to the control air, which is consistent with earlier results showing that fast explorers have larger gonads in spring and are more sensitive to HIPVs. If HIPVs constitute powerful attractants in foraging birds, their influence on gonadal development prior to breeding appears to be relatively subtle and to only enhance reproductive readiness in some individuals. These results are nevertheless important as they set olfaction as a new player in the seasonal timing of reproduction in birds.

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