, Volume 49, Issue 4, pp 322-329
Date: 01 Feb 2001

Does supernormal stimulus influence parental behaviour of the cuckoo's host?

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The supernormal stimulus hypothesis (SSH) states that a cuckoo chick should obtain more parental care than host young by means of exaggerated sensory signals. We tested the SSH by comparing parental care by reed warblers at parasitized and non-parasitized nests. A comparison of feeding rates to parasite and host chicks of the same size showed that parasitized nests received more food than non-parasitized ones with one host chick. There was an interesting relationship between average prey length and the mass of a cuckoo chick: prey length first increased with chick mass, but decreased after the cuckoo chick outgrew the average-sized host brood (three to four young at fledging). This might be expected if fosterers reduced the selectivity of their foraging behaviour when trying to satisfy the supernormal food demands of the parasitic chick. This suggestion is supported by the finding that the relationship between nestling mass and proportion of less economical small prey is inverse to the relationship between nestling mass and prey size. These results suggest that the parental behaviour of reed warblers is adjusted by selection to the needs of an average-sized brood. The overall proportion of insect orders was significantly different between the parasitic and host chicks. This result probably reflects the opportunistic foraging habits of the host. The qualitative difference (proportion of insect orders) between host and cuckoo nestling diets is partly a by-product of unequal length distribution of members of different taxonomic groups. The results of this study are consistent with the SSH.

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