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Brood mate eviction or brood mate acceptance by brood parasitic nestlings? An experimental study with the non-evictor great spotted cuckoo and its magpie host

Soler, Manuel, de Neve, Liesbeth
Behavioral ecology and sociobiology 2013 v.67 no.4 pp. 601-607
Cuculidae, Pica pica, chicks, eggs, foods, hosts, nests, parasites, parasitism, parents, progeny, risk
Some avian brood parasitic nestlings are highly virulent, destroying all host eggs or nestmates, while others accept growing up together with host nestmates. The traditional idea was that all brood parasitic nestlings would benefit from being alone in the host nest. Thus, why do nestlings of some brood parasitic species accept the company of host offspring in the nest? The trade-off hypothesis suggests that brood parasites must balance the costs and benefits of killing host young because of two major potential costs: risk of nest desertion and loss of begging assistance. Here, we test this hypothesis in a non-evictor cuckoo species, the great spotted cuckoo Clamator glandarius and its main host, the magpie Pica pica, by manipulating brood size (1–3 nestlings) and brood composition (only cuckoo, only magpie or mixed) during three consecutive breeding seasons. None of the broods were abandoned by host parents, and cuckoo nestlings alone in the nest tended to grow faster (i.e. wing length). Thus, none of the predictions of the two potential costs on which the trade-off hypothesis is based apply to the great spotted cuckoo–magpie system. Our experimental study could not directly test why chick killing has not evolved in great spotted cuckoos, but the results point in the direction of several possibilities. We suggest that chick killing in great spotted cuckoos may not be adaptive mainly because another, less costly strategy (i.e. outcompeting host nestmates for food), is efficient for successful parasitism of magpie hosts.