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Aggressive hosts are undeterred by a cuckoo's hawk mimicry, but probably make good foster parents.

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Moya, Collins 
Spottiswoode, Claire N  ORCID logo


Parasites face a trade-off if the highest quality hosts are also most resistant to exploitation. For brood parasites, well-defended host nests may be both harder to parasitize and harder to predate, leading to better survival of parasitic chicks. This trade-off could be accentuated if brood-parasitic adaptations to reduce front-line defences of hosts, such as mimicry of hawks by Cuculus cuckoos, do not deter hosts which aggressively mob raptors. Here we investigate the costs and benefits to the African cuckoo (Cuculus gularis) of specializing on a highly aggressive host species, the fork-tailed drongo (Dicrurus adsimilis). Field experiments showed that drongos strongly attacked and mobbed both cuckoo and hawk models, implying that hawk mimicry does not deter front-line defences against African cuckoos. Attacks on cuckoo and hawk models generally declined after the egg stage but attacks on snake models sharply increased, suggesting drongos may treat hawks more like cuckoos than predators. We suggest that the cost to cuckoos of parasitizing an aggressive host may be alleviated by subsequent benefits to their offspring, since drongo nests survived better than nests of other species with similar nesting ecology. These results are indicative of a trade-off between host quality and susceptibility for a brood parasite.


Funder: Natural Environment Research Council

Funder: DST-NRF Centre of Excellence at the FitzPatrick Institute, University of Cape Town

Funder: Pembroke College, Cambridge


aggression, brood parasitism, coevolution, cuckoo, mimicry, trade-off, Animals, Hawks, Nesting Behavior, Passeriformes, Parasites, Chickens

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Proc Biol Sci

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The Royal Society
Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BB/J014109/1)