Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Zanette, Liana Y.


The reproductive success of parasites is entirely dependent on their ability to encounter suitable hosts. Obligate brood parasitic birds may increase host encounter rate, and consequently their reproductive output, if they cause unsuitable late-stage host nests to fail thereby stimulating the host to create another nest that they can parasitize. I tested key predictions of this ‘farming’ hypothesis for the brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater). I found evidence that cowbird attacks are not uncommon, a basic requirement of the hypothesis. Furthermore, I found multiple lines of evidence that cowbird attacks are not indiscriminate, but directed at non-parasitized nests and at those at a developmental stage too late to be suitable for parasitism. I experimentally demonstrate that cowbirds determine the age of a nest by directly puncturing a portion of the clutch or indirectly by attending to the absolute number of eggs. Cowbirds also parasitized a high proportion of the re-nesting attempts following their attacks suggesting that they take advantage of the reproductive opportunities they create. A Monte Carlo model comparing simulated farming and non-farming cowbirds also shows that a farming strategy may lead to higher reproductive output likely by enhancing individual nest discovery as opposed to increasing the number of nests. How cowbirds occupy space may also provide insight into how they encounter potential hosts. Utilization distributions (UDs) are among the most applicable methods of quantifying space use. In one of the first practical applications of a multidimentional UD that includes time as a dimension, I show that cowbirds were significantly more likely to be found around nesting sites when a nest was active suggesting that cowbirds optimize their nest searching. I did not, however, find a difference in probability of occurrence depending on the developmental stage of a nest. I also found evidence that cowbirds become less territorial later in the day. Comparisons to strictly spatial UDs suggest that including a time dimension may provide a more realistic model of how cowbirds find host nests and interact with one another. Thus, cowbirds can discriminate appropriate vs inappropriate nests and adjust their predatory and spatial behaviour accordingly to improve their encounters with hosts.

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