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Do Hosts Discriminate between Sexually Dichromatic Male and Female Brown-headed Cowbirds?

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Female brood parasites are recognized as threats to reproductive success by many host species. Male brood parasites may accompany females while they search for nests to parasitize and males depredate nests throughout the nesting cycle. Hence, selection may also favour recognition of males. We examined whether two common host species perceive male brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) as brood parasites, as nest predators, or neither. We quantified visits of male cowbirds to nests of yellow warblers (Dendroica petechia) and red-winged blackbirds (Ageliaus phoeniceus) to assess the frequency with which these host species interact with male cowbirds. Males were observed near nests during hosts’ laying and incubating stages, although less frequently than female cowbirds. No visits by cowbirds occurred while parents cared for nestlings. We then presented models of male and female cowbirds plus a non-threatening control to yellow warblers and red-winged blackbirds during laying and nestling periods. If hosts perceive males and females similarly, they should respond more intensely to the cowbird models during the laying period, when nests are most likely to be parasitized. Both species responded similarly to male and female cowbird models during laying, which suggests that hosts view cowbirds of both sexes as threats. The responses of yellow warblers with nestlings to male cowbirds were strongly influenced by the order of model presentation. Warblers first presented with the male cowbird gave much reduced anti-parasite responses than those that first interacted with the female then the male cowbird. These results suggest that yellow warblers recognized male vs. female cowbirds, but that discrimination was not expressed during laying. By contrast, red-winged blackbirds did not discriminate between male and female cowbirds at either nesting stage.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations:  Department of Biological Sciences, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, MB, Canada

Publication date: 2008-06-01

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