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Break-down of arms race between the red-backed shrike (Lanius collurio) and common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus)

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The red-backed shrike Lanius collurio once was parasitised by the common cuckoo Cuculus canorus in low frequency until the late 1960s in Hungary, but no case of parasitism is known from the last three or four decades. The cuckoo most probably abandoned this host species because its arms race had defeated, which may be indicated by the high level egg recognition and rejection ability of shrikes. However, mimicry of the cuckoo eggs in the last known cases of parasitism was significantly lower than between cuckoo eggs and host eggs collected from great reed warbler Acrocephalus arundinaceus nests within the same period. This suggests that red-backed shrikes won the arms race leaving no chance for cuckoos to develop better mimicry for their eggs. We tested these findings with experimentally induced parasitism using two types of real eggs: red-backed shrikes rejected 57.6% of the foreign conspecific eggs, but rejected 93.3% of the real cuckoo eggs transferred form nests of great reed warblers. This high level of rejection against real cuckoo eggs shows that there is no chance for presently occurring cuckoos to reparasitise red-backed shrikes in Hungary. Experimental eggs rejected by shrikes had lower mimicry than the eggs which were accepted, but intraclutch variation did not differ between accepters and rejecters. Hosts' aggression was significantly higher against the stuffed cuckoo than against the control species, the collared dove Streptopelia decaocto, and it was the least against female red-backed shrikes. Red-backed shrikes high aggression against cuckoo dummies also showed a highly developed antiparasite adaptation.


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