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Explaining variation in brood parasitism rates between potential host species with similar habitat requirements

Li, Donglai, Zhang, Zhengwang, Grim, Tomáš, Liang, Wei, Stokke, Bård G.
Evolutionary ecology 2016 v.30 no.5 pp. 905-923
Acrocephalus, Cuculus canorus, adults, breeding, breeding season, brood parasitism, chicks, eggs, evolution, females, habitats, host preferences, host specificity, hosts, life history, nesting sites, nests, parasites, river deltas, sympatry, China, Yellow River
Host specialization evolved in many parasite-host systems. Evolution and maintenance of host specificity may be influenced by host life-history traits, active host selection by the parasite, and host anti-parasite strategies. The relative importance of these factors is poorly understood in situations that offer parasites a choice between hosts with similar habitat requirements. The common cuckoo Cuculus canorus is a generalist parasite on the species level, but individual females prefer particular host species. In reed beds of the Yellow River Delta, China, two potential hosts with similar nest characteristics, Oriental reed warblers Acrocephalus orientalis and reed parrotbills Paradoxornis heudei, breed in sympatry. We found that warblers were parasitized at much higher rates than parrotbills. Both hosts recognized and rejected non-mimetic model eggs well, indicating that they have been involved in an arms-race with cuckoos. Cuckoo eggs closely resembled warbler eggs, and such eggs were mostly accepted by warblers but rejected by parrotbills. Only warblers recognized adult cuckoos as a specific threat. Both hosts were equally good at raising cuckoo chicks. Low nest density, partial isolation by breeding time, small scale differences in nest and nest site characteristics, and high rejection rates of natural cuckoo eggs are likely cumulatively responsible for the low current parasitism rate in parrotbills. This study emphasizes the importance of integrating the study of general host life-history characteristics and specific anti-parasitism strategies of hosts across all breeding stages to understand the evolution of host specificity.