A generalist brood parasite modifies use of a host in response to reproductive success

Matthew I.M. Louder, Wendy M. Schelsky, Amber N. Albores, Jeffrey P. Hoover

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Avian obligate brood parasites, which rely solely on hosts to raise their young, should choose the highest quality hosts to maximize reproductive output. Brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) are extreme host generalists, yet female cowbirds could use information based on past reproductive outcomes to make egg-laying decisions thus minimizing fitness costs associated with parasitizing low-quality hosts. We use a long-term (21 years) nest-box study of a single host, the prothonotary warbler (Protonotaria citrea), to show that local cowbird reproductive success, but not host reproductive success, was positively correlated with the probability of parasitism the following year. Experimental manipulations of cowbird success corroborated that female cow- birds make future decisions about which hosts to use based on information pertaining to past cowbird success, both within and between years. The within-year pattern, in particular, points to local cowbird females selecting hosts based on past reproductive outcomes. This, coupled with high site fidelity of female cowbirds between years, points to information use, rather than cowbird natal returns alone, increasing parasitism rates on highly productive sites between years.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20151615
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1814
StatePublished - Sep 2 2015


  • Brood parasitism
  • Cognition and reproduction
  • Cowbird
  • Host selection
  • Reproductive performance information
  • Statistical decision theory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • General Environmental Science
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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