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Size matters: Shiny cowbirds secure more food than host nestmates thanks to their larger size, not signal exaggeration

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Bortolato, T., Gloag, R., Reboreda, J. C., & Fiorini, V. D. (2019). Size matters: Shiny cowbirds secure more food than host nestmates thanks to their larger size, not signal exaggeration. Animal Behaviour, 157, 201-207. doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2019.09.009.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-0004-E12D-C
Many hosts of obligate brood parasitic birds invest more in parasitic nestlings than they do in their own young. The shiny cowbird, Molothrus bonariensis, a generalist parasite, is fed at a higher proportion than its host nestmates when it is reared in nests of a smaller-bodied host, the house wren, Troglodytes aedon. We test two hypotheses that could account for this differential allocation of food by host parents. The signal exaggeration hypothesis states that cowbird chicks have visual and/or acoustic begging signals that elicit preferential feeding. The size-advantage hypothesis states that hosts preferentially feed large chicks and/or that larger chicks outcompete host chicks in a scramble competition for food. To gain insight into the relative importance of size versus species-specific signals on food allocation by house wrens, we performed audio and video recordings in nests with experimental broods of (1) a 2-day-old cowbird chick and a 2-day-old wren chick (different species, different size), (2) a 2-day-old cowbird chick and an 8-day-old wren chick (different species, same size) and (3) a 2-day-old house wren and an 8-day-old house wren (same species, different size). When cowbirds shared the nest with a same-size wren chick, both chicks received food in equal proportion. In contrast, larger chicks (both cowbirds and wrens) paired with small wren nestmates always received a higher food share. Cowbird begging behaviour and call traits differed from house wrens, but these differences did not always coincide with increased food. We conclude that, at least when cowbird nestlings are young (2 days old), their relatively large size accounts for the larger share of food they receive from house wren hosts, rather than some quality of their begging signal.