The recognition of and differential responses to salient stimuli are among the main drivers of behavioral plasticity, yet, how animals evolve and modulate functional responses to novel classes of antagonistic stimuli remain poorly understood. We studied free-living male red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) to test whether gene expression responses in blood are distinct or shared between patterns of aggressive behavioral responses directed at simulated conspecific versus heterospecific intruders. In this species, males defend territories against conspecific males and respond aggressively to female brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater), a brood parasite that commonly lays eggs in blackbird nests. Both conspecific songs and parasitic calls elicited aggressive responses from focal subjects and caused a downregulation in genes associated with immune system response, relative to control calls of a second, harmless heterospecific species. In turn, only the conspecific song treatment elicited an increase in singing behavior and an upregulation of genes associated with metabolic processes relative to the two heterospecific calls. Our results suggest that aspects of antagonistic behaviors to both conspecifics and brood parasites can be mediated by similar physiological responses, suggestive of shared molecular and behavioral pathways involved in the recognition and reaction to both evolutionarily old and new enemies.
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