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Reactions of Four Passerine Species To Threats of Predation and Cowbird Parasitism: Enemy Recognition or Generalized Responses?

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Four host species of the parasitic brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) were exposed to taxidermic mounts of a female cowbird, fox sparrow (Passerella iliaca), and common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) at their nests during their egg-laying or nestling stage. Red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus), a species that accepts cowbird eggs laid in their nests, responded more aggressively to cowbird models early in their nesting cycle, indicating that they recognized the unique threat the cowbird posed. Gray catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis), northern orioles (Icterus galbula), and cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) can remove cowbird eggs from their nests and for the most part they responded similarly to cowbird models and the "nonthreatening control," i.e. a fox sparrow. Cedar waxwings were nonaggressive to all the models and may rely on concealment to protect their nests from enemies. Removal of cowbird eggs by puncture ejection is more risky than grasp ejection. Despite this, orioles and waxwings (puncture ejectors) were not significantly more aggressive to cowbird models at egg laying than catbirds (grasp ejectors). Responses of the three rejector species toward the cowbird model did not change over the nesting cycle, indicating further that they do not recognize cowbirds as a unique threat. Rejector species may not recognize cowbirds because they have little experience with them. With the exception of waxwings, all of the hosts recognized the grackle as an enemy and increased their levels of defence from the laying to nestling stages. Three of the host-species did not simply respond in a generalized manner to any intruder at their nests but indeed recognized specific enemies. Considerable interspecific variability exists amongst the four species in defensive behaviours, which may reflect their different nesting habitats.

Affiliations: 1: (Department of Zoology, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba R3T 2N2, Canada

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