The effect of avian brood parasitism on physiological responses of host nestlings

Hannah M. Scharf, Mark E. Hauber, Brett C. Mommer, Jeffrey P. Hoover, Wendy M. Schelsky

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Avian obligate brood parasites lay their eggs in the nests of other species that may provide care for the foreign offspring. Brood parasitism often imparts substantial fitness losses upon host nestlings when they are raised alongside the typically more competitive, larger, and older parasitic chick(s). Whereas fitness costs due to reduced host offspring survival in parasitized broods have been studied in detail, the physiological changes in host nestlings caused by parasitic nestmate(s) are less well known. We compared prothonotary warbler (Protonotaria citrea) nestlings, a host of the nest-sharing brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater), in experimentally parasitized vs. non-parasitized broods. Our aim was to determine whether cohabitation with brood parasitic young impacted host nestling baseline corticosterone plasma concentrations, immune responses, body condition, and mortality. Corticosterone levels and body condition of host nestlings were similar between nests with or without a cowbird nestmate, whereas host immune responses were lower and nestling mortality was greater in parasitized broods, irrespective of variation in brood size or total brood mass. We detected no trade-offs of baseline corticosterone levels with either immune responses or with body condition. These results suggest that this host species’ nestlings experience some adverse fitness-relevant physiological effects in parasitized broods, but are also resilient in other aspects when coping with brood parasitism.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)861-872
Number of pages12
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2021


  • Acceptor
  • Body condition
  • Glucocorticoids
  • Immune function
  • Stressor

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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