Brood parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds and the expression of sexual characters in their hosts
Faculty of Sciences. Biology
Oecologia. - Berlin
, p. 167-177
University of Antwerp
Interspecific brood parasites may use the secondary sexual characters of the hosts to decide which species to parasitize. Hence, species with conspicuous and well-recognisable traits may have higher chances of becoming parasitised. Using North American birds and their frequent brood parasite, the brown-headed cowbird Molothrus ater, we tested the relationship between features of song and plumage coloration of hosts and the frequency of brood parasitism while controlling for several potentially confounding factors. Relying on two sets of analysis, we focused separately on the evolutionary view of the parasite and the host. From the cowbird's perspective, we found that males of heavily parasitized species posit songs with low syllable repertoire size, shorter inter-song interval and have brighter plumage. From the host's perspective, a phylogenetic analysis revealed similar associations for features of song, but not for plumage characteristics that were unrelated to brood parasitism. These comparative findings may imply that brood parasites choose novel hosts based on heterospecific signals; and/or host species working against sexual selection escape from brood parasitism by evolving inconspicuous sexual signals. Although our data do not allow us to distinguish between these two evolutionary scenarios, our results suggest that selection factors mediating cowbird parasitism via host recognition by heterospecific signals may have an important role in the evolutionary relationship between brood parasites and their hosts.