Nest desertion bya cowbird host: an anti-parasite behavior or a response to egg loss?

TitleNest desertion bya cowbird host: an anti-parasite behavior or a response to egg loss?
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2006
AuthorsKosciuch, KL, Parker, TH, Sandercock, BK
JournalBehavioral Ecology
Pagination917 -924
Accession NumberKNZ001077
KeywordsBell's Vireo, brown-headed cowbird, egg predation, evolutionary lag, host–parasite coevolution, Molothrus ater, Vireo bellii

Natural selection can favor songbirds that desert nests containing eggs of the parasitic brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater). However, the high variability in desertion of parasitized nests within species is perplexing in light of the typically high costs of parasitism. Because nest desertion can also be a response to partial clutch predation, we first asked if Bell's vireos (Vireo bellii) deserted nests in response to the presence of cowbird eggs (antiparasite response hypothesis) or to egg removal by predators and female cowbirds (egg predation hypothesis). Second, we asked whether variation in nest desertion was due to intrinsic differences among individuals or to variation in nest contents. We monitored a large number of nests (n = 494) and performed a clutch manipulation experiment to test these hypotheses. The number of vireo eggs that remained in a nest was a strong predictor of desertion both within and among pairs. Neither the presence of a single cowbird egg, which leads to nest failure for this host, nor the number of cowbird eggs received in a vireo nest influenced nest desertion. Furthermore, vireos did not desert experimental nests when we immediately exchanged cowbird eggs for vireo eggs but deserted if we removed vireo eggs and replaced them with cowbird eggs the following morning. Desertion of parasitized nests by Bell's vireos can be almost entirely explained as a response to partial or complete clutch loss and does not appear to have been altered by selection from brood parasitism.