Evolutionary Ecology

, Volume 30, Issue 5, pp 905–923 | Cite as

Explaining variation in brood parasitism rates between potential host species with similar habitat requirements

  • Donglai Li
  • Zhengwang Zhang
  • Tomáš Grim
  • Wei Liang
  • Bård G. Stokke
Original Paper


Host specialization evolved in many parasite-host systems. Evolution and maintenance of host specificity may be influenced by host life-history traits, active host selection by the parasite, and host anti-parasite strategies. The relative importance of these factors is poorly understood in situations that offer parasites a choice between hosts with similar habitat requirements. The common cuckoo Cuculus canorus is a generalist parasite on the species level, but individual females prefer particular host species. In reed beds of the Yellow River Delta, China, two potential hosts with similar nest characteristics, Oriental reed warblers Acrocephalus orientalis and reed parrotbills Paradoxornis heudei, breed in sympatry. We found that warblers were parasitized at much higher rates than parrotbills. Both hosts recognized and rejected non-mimetic model eggs well, indicating that they have been involved in an arms-race with cuckoos. Cuckoo eggs closely resembled warbler eggs, and such eggs were mostly accepted by warblers but rejected by parrotbills. Only warblers recognized adult cuckoos as a specific threat. Both hosts were equally good at raising cuckoo chicks. Low nest density, partial isolation by breeding time, small scale differences in nest and nest site characteristics, and high rejection rates of natural cuckoo eggs are likely cumulatively responsible for the low current parasitism rate in parrotbills. This study emphasizes the importance of integrating the study of general host life-history characteristics and specific anti-parasitism strategies of hosts across all breeding stages to understand the evolution of host specificity.


Brood parasitism Common cuckoo Egg rejection Host specificity Nest defence Oriental reed warbler Parasitism rate Reed parrotbill Yellow River Delta 



We are grateful to John A. Endler, Sara Helms Cahan and two anonymous referees for constructive comments that significantly improved the manuscript. We thank the Yellow River Delta Management Bureau for permission to undertake this study including all experimental procedures. The experiments comply with the current laws of China. We are particularly grateful to two French volunteers (Andrieu Julie and Marion Soresina) for their help with data collection in the field; Yueliang Liu, Shuyu Zhu, Kai San, Xianghai Du, Shuyi Zhang, and Pengfei Guo for their kind support, and Baoshan Cui for sharing the laboratory in the field station. We would also like to thank Chao Li (Gudong Oil Production Plant, Sinopec Shengli Oilfield), Junlin Chen (Anhui University), Xianxian Liu, Xiaomei Shen, and Qiao Wu for their kind help during this study. This work was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Nos. 31301888 to DL; 31272328 and 31472013 to WL), Open Fund of Ministry of Education Key Laboratory for Biodiversity Sciences and Ecological Engineering, Beijing Normal University (K1401 to DL), General scientific research project of Education Department of Liaoning Province (L2015196 to DL), National Basic Research Program of China (2006CB403305 to ZZ) and United Foundation for Natural Science of National Natural Science Foundation of China and People’s Government of Guangdong Province (U0833005 to ZZ). BGS was funded by the Research Council of Norway (218144). TG acknowledges the support from Human Frontier Science Program (awards RGY69/2007 and RGY83/2012) and the Czech Science Foundation (Grant No. P506/12/2404). We declare that all authors have no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

10682_2016_9850_MOESM1_ESM.docx (748 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 748 kb)
10682_2016_9850_MOESM2_ESM.docx (35 kb)
Supplementary material 2 (DOCX 35 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.College of Life SciencesLiaoning UniversityShenyangChina
  2. 2.Ministry of Education Key Laboratory for Biodiversity Sciences and Ecological Engineering, College of Life SciencesBeijing Normal UniversityBeijingChina
  3. 3.Ministry of Education Key Laboratory for Tropical Animal and Plant Ecology, College of Life SciencesHainan Normal UniversityHaikouChina
  4. 4.Department of Zoology and Laboratory of OrnithologyPalacký UniversityOlomoucCzech Republic
  5. 5.Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA)TrondheimNorway

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