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Life-history theory predicts host behavioural responses to experimental brood parasitism

Hauber, M.E., Samaš, P., Anderson, M.G., Rutila, J., Low, J., Cassey, P., Grim, T.
Ethology, ecology & evolution 2014 v.26 no.4 pp. 349-364
Cuculus canorus, Turdus merula, animal behavior, birds, brood parasitism, clutch size, color, eggs, hosts, life history, models, nests, parasites, virulence, New Zealand
Life-history theory posits that the evolutionary responses of hosts to avian brood parasitism will be shaped by the extent of the fitness costs of parasitism. Previous modelling work predicted that hosts of more virulent parasites should eject foreign eggs, irrespective of clutch size, whereas hosts of less virulent parasites, with smaller clutch sizes, should desert (abandon) parasitized clutches and, with larger clutch sizes, should eject foreign eggs. Egg rejection behaviour of European blackbirds (Turdus merula) and song thrush (T. philomelos) in their introduced range in New Zealand was induced by manipulating the colour of one of the birds’ own eggs. We also used parallel experimental manipulations in the common redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus), a regular host species with a large clutch size which pays a moderate cost when parasitized by the common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus). In all three species, eggs coloured entirely black were more often rejected than eggs coloured with black spots but with the rest of the background colour left visible. Rejections of black eggs occurred mainly through nest desertion in blackbirds, which have smaller clutch sizes, and mainly through egg ejection in song thrush, which have larger clutch sizes. As predicted, redstarts mostly ejected black eggs. Alternative egg rejection behaviours may have evolved in response to differently virulent brood parasitism across these species. For example, in the absence of interspecific parasitism in both their native and introduced ranges, selection by low-cost intraspecific brood parasitism may explain the experimentally-induced behavioural differences in egg rejection in blackbirds, with smaller clutch sizes, versus song thrushes, with larger clutch sizes. Such experimental approaches, informed by life-history theory, should be generally useful in larger-scale, comparative frameworks, to determine the relative roles of intra- versus interspecific brood parasitism in the evolution of egg rejection behaviours across diverse avian lineages.