Does host-absent vocalisation of common cuckoo chicks increase hosts’ food provisioning behaviour?

  • Marcel Honza
  • Milica Požgayová
  • Adéla Petrželková
  • Petr Procházka
Original Article


Parent-absent vocalisation is produced by nestlings of several bird families when the parents are away from the nest. An analogous behaviour, host-absent vocalisation, has been found in some species of avian brood parasites and there are several explanations why this behaviour could have evolved. Using playback experiments, we examined whether polygynous great reed warblers (Acrocephalus arundinaceus) adjust their food provisioning behaviour in response to host-absent begging vocalisation uttered by the common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) chicks. We found that both on monogamous and polygynous nests, host pair members responded to the broadcasted parasite begging signals by increasing their feeding rates; yet, they did not deliver larger volumes of food as a consequence of somewhat smaller prey brought per visit. Nevertheless, we propose that host-absent vocalisation of the common cuckoo chick may still represent a signal of hunger that may compensate for other, deficient components of parasite begging display. However, the efficiency of this signal may be limited by the foster parents’ provisioning abilities and local prey availability.

Significance statement

Bird chicks beg loudly for food when their parents are at the nest, as well as when the parents search for food elsewhere. The same applies to young parasites raised by their hosts. Experimental playback of host-absent begging calls of cuckoo chicks increased great reed warbler feeding frequency but had no effect on the volume of food delivered. Host-absent vocalisation may represent signal of hunger; however, its effectiveness may be limited by provisioning abilities of the hosts.


Brood parasitism Parent-absent begging Parent–offspring conflict Vocal stimulus 



We thank M. M. Abraham, R. Beňo, V. Brlík, M. Čapek, V. Jelínek, T. Karasová, J. Koleček, L. Kulísek, R. Piálková, R. Poláková, B. Prudík, K. Sosnovcová, P. Steidlová, M. Šulc and K. Žabková for their assistance in the field. We are grateful to the management of the Hodonín Fish Farm for permission to conduct the fieldwork on their grounds. Comments of M. Leonard and two anonymous referees improved the previous version of the manuscript.


This work was supported by the Czech Science Foundation (grant number 17-12262S).

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

To assess possible ethical impact of our experimental manipulation, we compared several aspects of bird behaviour related to food intake or conspicuousness to potential predators on the video recordings with and without the HAV and control playback, respectively. Cuckoo chicks received similar volumes of food per hour both before and after the playback (mean ± SD; cuckoo HAV, before: 15.10 ± 7.46, after: 15.18 ± 7.66, paired t test t = − 0.05, df = 28, P = 0.963; control background noise, before: 13.53 ± 6.19, after: 13.52 ± 7.78, paired t test t = 0.01, df = 14, P = 0.994). Hence, a short-term increase in food volume or provisioning rate in response to the HAV playback should not have had negative effects either on the cuckoo chicks or great reed warbler hosts. Predation rates of cuckoo chicks did not significantly differ among the groups of nests subjected to the playback of cuckoo HAV (10%, N = 26), control playback (27%, N = 15) or no playback (17%, N = 24; 2 × 3 Fisher exact probability test: P = 0.491). None of the nests were deserted due to the experimental or control treatment or any other reasons.

This study was carried out with the permission of the regional nature conservation authorities (permit numbers JMK: 115874/2013 and 38506/2016; MUHOCJ: 41433/2012/OŽP, 34437/2014/OŽP, and 14306/2016/OŽP). The fieldwork adhered to the animal care protocol (experimental project numbers 039/2011 AV ČR and 3030/ENV/17-169/630/17) and to the Czech Law on the Protection of Animals against Mistreatment (licence numbers CZ 01272 and CZ 01284).


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Marcel Honza
    • 1
  • Milica Požgayová
    • 1
  • Adéla Petrželková
    • 1
  • Petr Procházka
    • 1
  1. 1.The Czech Academy of SciencesInstitute of Vertebrate BiologyBrnoCzech Republic

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