Experiments and observations of prothonotary warblers indicate a lack of adaptive responses to brood parasitism

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It has been suggested that prothonotary warblers, Protonotaria citrea, respond adaptively to brood parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds, Molothrus ater, even though they lack historical habitat and range overlap with cowbirds. I studied behaviours functioning as potential defences against brood parasitism in the prothonotary warbler, a cavity-nesting host species. Opening sizes preferred by prothonotary warblers were not small enough to exclude cowbirds, and warblers were parasitized heavily in nests with larger openings. Male and female prothonotary warblers were always away from their nests before sunrise when cowbirds laid eggs in their nests. Prothonotary warblers infrequently (∼6% of 560 nests) deserted nests that were parasitized during the egg-laying period, but frequently (56% of 151 nests) deserted nests that were parasitized before a female warbler laid her first egg. Prothonotary warblers also deserted 60-70% of nests where a cowbird egg, warbler egg or die were experimentally added before egg laying. However, the experimental addition of one of these three objects during the egg-laying period did not elicit desertion. The desertion of parasitized nests was not affected by nest site availability as has been reported elsewhere in the literature. This lack of a response to brood parasitism by prothonotary warblers may be an example of evolutionary lag, because it is likely that they have only recently been exposed to widespread parasitism, and they accept parasitism at a high cost to their own reproductive success.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)935-944
Number of pages10
JournalAnimal Behaviour
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 1 2003

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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