Begging behavior and food acquisition by brown-headed cowbird nestlings
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Understanding the selective forces that limit the exaggeration of begging signals is a critical issue in understanding the evolution of begging behavior. I studied the begging behavior of nestlings of the brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater), a brood parasite. In the nests of indigo buntings (Passerina cyanea), brown-headed cowbird nestlings received approximately twice as much food per hour than their host nestmates. I tested three hypotheses for the mechanism by which cowbirds acquired more food than their bunting nestmates: the size advantage hypothesis, the signal exaggeration hypothesis, and the novel begging behavior hypothesis. I found support for the hypotheses that cowbirds acquire more food as a result of their larger body size, and due to the exaggeration of begging signals that are not dependent on body size. I did not find support for the role of novel begging behaviors in cowbird food acquisition. These results suggest that food acquisition by host chicks in unparasitized nests could be increased by the exaggeration of begging signals. Recent work suggests that such exaggeration may be limited by the risk of nest predation, but further studies are needed.
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