Brood parasitism of black-capped vireos: Frontline and post-laying behavioral responses and effects on productivity

Than J. Boves, Jinelle H. Sperry, Kristin Comolli, Patrick J. Weatherhead

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The cost of brood parasitism favors the evolution of host behaviors that reduce the risk or expense of being parasitized. Endangered Black-capped Vireos (Vireo atricapilla) have likely coexisted with brood-parasitic Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) for more than 10,000 yr, so it is likely that they have evolved anti-parasitic behaviors. We monitored naturally parasitized and non-parasitized vireo nests to evaluate factors that might explain parasitism risk and nest desertion behavior and also assessed whether behaviors that occurred after being parasitized improved reproductive output. Vireos reduced the risk of parasitism by initiating breeding early and nesting farther from open grasslands and edges of woody thickets. Post-laying, nest desertion was common (70% of parasitized nests) and increased with both the presence of at least one cowbird egg in nests and clutch reduction by cowbirds. After accounting for these cues, desertion was also more likely at nests located closer to cowbird foraging habitat and below potential cowbird vantage points. Despite its regularity, desertion did not appear to provide reproductive benefits to vireos. Instead, accepting cowbird eggs was a more effective strategy because 42% of cowbird eggs did not hatch. Furthermore, cowbird eggs were somehow ejected from at least three vireo nests. Our results suggest that Black-capped Vireos can behave in a variety of ways that reduce the impact of brood parasitism, with frontline behaviors appearing to provide the greatest benefit. Our results also suggest that habitat management should focus on providing Black-capped Vireos with adequate breeding habitat that provides access to safe nesting sites, and with high-quality wintering habitat that allows vireos to migrate and initiate nesting early.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)364-378
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Field Ornithology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 1 2014


  • Adaptive behavior
  • Brown-headed cowbird
  • Coevolution
  • Molothrus ater
  • Nest abandonment
  • Nest desertion
  • Vireo atricapilla

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics

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