Cowbird removals unexpectedly increase productivity of a brood parasite and the songbird host

TitleCowbird removals unexpectedly increase productivity of a brood parasite and the songbird host
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2008
AuthorsKosciuch, KL, Sandercock, BK
JournalEcological Applications
Pagination537 -548
Accession NumberKNZ001138

Generalist brood parasites reduce productivity and population growth of avian hosts and have been implicated in population declines of several songbirds of conservation concern. To estimate the demographic effects of brood parasitism on Bell's Vireos (Vireo bellii), we removed Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) in a replicated switchback experimental design. Cowbird removals decreased parasitism frequency from 77% and 85% at unmanipulated plots to 58% and 47% at removal plots in 2004 and 2005, respectively. Vireo productivity per pair was higher at cowbird removal plots when years were pooled (mean = 2.6 ± 0.2 [SE] young per pair) compared to unmanipulated plots (1.2 ± 0.1). Nest desertion frequency was lower at cowbird removal plots (35% of parasitized nests) compared to unmanipulated plots (69%) because removal of host eggs was the proximate cue for nest desertion, and vireos experienced lower rates of egg loss at cowbird removal plots. Nest success was higher among unparasitized than parasitized nests, and parasitized nests at cowbird removal plots had a higher probability of success than parasitized nests at unmanipulated plots. Unexpectedly, cowbird productivity from vireo pairs was higher at cowbird removal plots (mean = 0.3 ± 0.06 young per pair) than at unmanipulated plots (0.1 ± 0.03) because fewer parasitized nests were deserted and the probability of nest success was higher. Our study provides the first evidence that increases in cowbird productivity may be an unintended consequence of cowbird control programs, especially during the initial years of trapping when parasitism may only be moderately reduced. Thus, understanding the demographic impacts of cowbird removals requires an informed understanding of the behavioral ecology of host–parasite interactions.