Brood Parasite - Avian Brood Parasites

Avian Brood Parasites

In many monogamous bird species, there are extra-pair matings resulting in males outside the pair bond siring offspring and used by males to escape from the parental investment in raising their offspring. This form of cuckoldry is taken a step further when females lay their eggs in the nests of other individuals. Intraspecific brood parasitism is seen in a number of duck species with females laying their eggs in the nests of others for example in the Goldeneye, Bucephala clangula.

Interspecific brood-parasites include the Old World cuckoos in Eurasia and Australia, American Coots, Cowbirds and Black-headed Ducks in the Americas, and indigobirds, whydahs, and the honeyguides in Africa. Seven independent origins of obligate interspecific brood parasitism in birds have been proposed. While there is still some controversy over when and how many origins of interspecific brood parasitism have occurred, recent phylogenetic analyses suggest two origins in Passeriformes (once in New World cowbirds: Icteridae, and once in African Finches: Viduidae); three origins in Old World and New World cuckoos (once in Cuculinae, Phaenicophaeinae, and in Neomorphinae-Crotophaginae); a single origin in Old World honeyguides (Indicatoridae); and in a single species of waterfowl, the black-headed duck (Heteronetta atricapilla).

Most avian brood parasites are specialists which will only parasitize a single host species or a small group of closely related host species, but four out of the five parasitic cowbirds are generalists, which parasitize a wide variety of hosts; the Brown-headed Cowbird has 221 known hosts. They usually only lay one egg per nest, although in some cases, particularly the cowbirds, several females may use the same host nest.

The Common Cuckoo presents an interesting case in which the species as a whole parasitizes a wide variety of hosts, including the Reed Warbler and Dunnock, but individual females specialize in a single species. Genes regulating egg coloration appear to be passed down exclusively along the maternal line, allowing females to lay mimetic eggs in the nest of the species they specialize in. Females generally parasitize nests of the species which raised them. Male Common Cuckoos will fertilize females of all lines, maintaining sufficient gene flow among the different maternal lines.

The mechanisms of host selection by female cuckoos are somewhat unclear, though several hypotheses have been suggested in attempt to explain the choice. These include genetic inheritance of host preference, host imprinting on young birds, returning to place of birth and subsequently choosing a host randomly ("natal philopatry"), choice based on preferred nest site (nest-site hypothesis), and choice based on preferred habitat (habitat-selection hypothesis). Of these hypotheses the nest-site selection and habitat selection have been most supported by experimental analysis.

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