Acceptance or Rejection of Cowbird Parasitism: Cues Used in Decision-Making by Yellow Warblers (Dendroica petechia)

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Guigueno, Melanie Francoise
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The proximate causes triggering nest abandonment are unclear for most species, including the Yellow Warbler (Dendroica petechia), which abandons nests parasitized by cowbirds (via burial or desertion). Cowbird parasitism and rejection of parasitism are costly to some hosts; therefore cues affecting their responses have important evolutionary implications. Manipulative experiments showed that experimentally adding a cowbird egg elicited similar rejection frequencies (2008: 31.8%; 2009: 26.1%) as naturally laid eggs (2008: 27.1%; 2009: 20.0%). In 2008, interaction with an egg-removing model increased the probability of abandonment and the most aggressive individuals were more likely to bury the model cowbird egg. In 2009, eggs added to nests before sunrise were rejected at a frequency (29.7%) similar to eggs added to nests after sunrise (22.9%). Warblers returning to nests after egg addition peered significantly longer at their clutch than at control nests, shuffled their bodies more frequently when on the eggs and spent more time probing eggs with their bill once settled on their parasitized clutch. Furthermore, although non-mimetic blue eggs were not abandoned significantly more frequently than cowbird eggs (blue 31.1% versus cowbird 21.4%), only blue eggs were ejected from some nests. Thus, warblers use both tactile and visual cues to detect the presence of a parasitic egg in their nest. Eggs added to nests were not rejected at a lower frequency than naturally parasitized nests, as was recorded in a previous study. It is difficult to know whether this increase in abandonment of experimental eggs is due to phenotypic plasticity, genetic changes, or other factors. Egg recognition abilities may have changed because I have shown that the warblers’ behaviour changes before versus after egg addition, whereas no changes were recorded in an earlier study. Finally, not all individuals that buried eggs for the first time in 2009 (21.4%) buried again after being re-parasitized (5.3%), when less time remained in the breeding season relative to the first parasitism event. This suggests that egg rejection and host responsiveness in warblers, and likely other avian hosts that use abandonment as a form of rejection, is affected by environmental cues which may act as genetic expressers.
Brood parasitism, Yellow Warbler, Dendroica petechia, Behavioural syndrome, Phenotypic plasticity, Genetic change, Tactile, Visual, Egg recognition