Parent-absent begging in the Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater): the role of short-term need and nestmate size

TitleParent-absent begging in the Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater): the role of short-term need and nestmate size
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2009
AuthorsRivers, JW
JournalBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Pagination707 -717
Accession NumberKNZ001235
Keywordsbegging, brown-headed cowbird, generalist brood parasite, Molothrus ater, Parent-absent begging

Although it is well-established that nestlings of many altricial species beg when parents are away from the nest, we have a poor understanding of parent-absent begging in brood parasites, including the proximate factors that may influence begging frequency and intensity. In this study, I examined how parent-absent begging was influenced by competitive asymmetries between host and Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater) nestlings under disparate levels of short-term need. Food-deprived cowbird nestlings begged more frequently and for a greater proportion of parent-absent period than when food-supplemented, with similar patterns observed in hosts of different sizes. In contrast, three metrics of cowbird begging intensity varied relative to host size but not due to differences in short-term need. Cowbirds consistently begged more frequently and intensively than host nestlings for a given level of short-term need, providing evidence that cowbird begging displays are more frequent and intense than non-parasitic nestlings during both feeding visits and parent-absent periods. In sum, the frequency of begging by cowbirds was only influenced by short-term need, whereas begging intensity during parent-absent events was only influenced by the host against which cowbirds competed. This study demonstrates that host size and short-term need had differing influences on the frequency and intensity of parent-absent begging in cowbirds, although both factors are likely important in limiting the evolution of parent-absent begging in cowbirds. Because it appears to provide no immediate benefits yet may decrease fitness, parent-absent begging should be included in future theoretical models investigating the evolution of begging displays in nestling birds.