Community-level patterns of host use by the Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater), a generalist brood parasite

TitleCommunity-level patterns of host use by the Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater), a generalist brood parasite
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2010
AuthorsRivers, JW, Jensen, WE, Kosciuch, KL, Rothstein, SI
Pagination263 -273
Accession NumberKNZ001316
KeywordsAgelaius phoeniceus, Bell's Vireo, brood parasitism, community-level parasitism, Dickcissel, host use, Molothrus ater, multiple parasitism, red-winged blackbird, Spiza americana, Vireo bellii

Quantifying community-level host use by generalist brood parasites is important because it provides a measure of the resources that parasites need for reproduction. During the 2002–2007 breeding seasons, we quantified host use by the Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater) at Konza Prairie Biological Station in northeast Kansas. Overall, 54.4% of nests (n = 2,621) of 22 passerine host species that typically accept parasitic eggs were parasitized, and parasitized nests contained an average of 1.9 ± 1.03 (SD) Brown-headed Cowbird eggs, nestlings, or both. Multiple parasitism was common on the study site in all years: 55.7% of parasitized nests (n = 1,425) received ≥2 Brown-headed Cowbird eggs. The Bell's Vireo (Vireo bellii; 70.5%) and the Dickcissel (Spiza americana; 69.6%) were parasitized at a significantly greater rate than the Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus, 21.9%); collectively, these three species represented 85.8% of potential host nests found in all years. The host preference of Brown-headed Cowbirds did not appear to shift among the three species and instead they exhibited a consistent preference for Dickcissel nests over the course of the breeding season and among years. Both the rate and the intensity of parasitism on Dickcissels were significantly lower during the present study than in one conducted several decades earlier at the same site. Our results indicate that cowbirds in northeast Kansas differentially parasitize hosts, that most cowbird eggs are laid in the nests of a small number of host species, and that the Dickcissel appears to be preferred over other hosts.