The widespread belief that kin selection is necessary for the evolution of cooperative breeding in vertebrates has recently been questioned. These doubts have primarily arisen because of the paucity of unequivocal evidence for kin preferences in cooperative behaviour. Using the cooperative breeding system of long-tailed tits (Aegithalos caudatus) in which kin and non-kin breed within each social unit and helpers are failed breeders, we investigated whether helpers preferentially direct their care towards kin following breeding failure. First, using observational data, we show that not all failed breeders actually become helpers, but that those that do help usually do so at the nest of a close relative. Second, we confirm the importance of kinship for helping in this species by conducting a choice experiment. We show that potential helpers do not become helpers in the absence of close kin and, when given a choice between helping equidistant broods belonging to kin and non-kin within the same social unit, virtually all helped at the nest of kin. This study provides strong evidence that kinship plays an essential role in the maintenance of cooperative breeding in this species
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