, Volume 118, Issue 2, pp 265-276

A comparative study of host selection in the European cuckoo Cuculus canorus

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Certain kinds of hosts are commonly regarded as being more suitable than other for rearing European cuckoos (Cuculus canorus) – insectivores that lay small eggs and have open, shallow nests – although empirical tests of cuckoo host selection are lacking. We analysed host use by the European cuckoo in 72 British passerines that are potential hosts and for which there was information available on life-history variables and variables related to cuckoo-host coevolution, such as rate of parasitism, rejection rate of non-mimetic model eggs and degree of cuckoo-egg mimicry of host eggs. The relative population size of the host species affected parasitism rate most strongly, followed by relatively short duration of the nestling period, and the kind of nest, with cuckoos selecting open-nesting hosts. However, the effect of the nestling period could be related to host body size and the kind of nest used, because hole-nesting species normally have longer nestling periods than open-nesters. We re-analysed the data excluding hole nesters and corvid species (species with larger body mass), but the results remained identical. The European cuckoo may benefit from selecting hosts with short nestling periods because such hosts provide food for their nestlings at a very high rate. When only those species known as cuckoo hosts were analysed, the variable that best accounted for the parasitism rate was duration of the breeding season. Therefore, availability of potential hosts in both time and space is important for cuckoos in selecting hosts.

Received: 16 July 1998 / Accepted: 27 October 1998