Combining personal with social information facilitates host defences and explains why cuckoos should be secretive.
Individuals often vary defences in response to local predation or parasitism risk. But how should they assess threat levels when it pays their enemies to hide? For common cuckoo hosts, assessing parasitism risk is challenging: cuckoo eggs are mimetic and adult cuckoos are secretive and resemble hawks. Here, we show that egg rejection by reed warblers depends on combining personal and social information of local risk. We presented model cuckoos or controls at a pair's own nest (personal information of an intruder) and/or on a neighbouring territory, to which they were attracted by broadcasts of alarm calls (social information). Rejection of an experimental egg was stimulated only when hosts were alerted by both social and personal information of cuckoos. However, pairs that rejected eggs were not more likely to mob a cuckoo. Therefore, while hosts can assess risk from the sight of a cuckoo, a cuckoo cannot gauge if her egg will be accepted from host mobbing. Our results reveal how hosts respond rapidly to local variation in parasitism, and why it pays cuckoos to be secretive, both to avoid alerting their targets and to limit the spread of social information in the local host neighbourhood.
Natural Environment Research Council (NE/M00807X/1)