Rufous Common Cuckoo chicks are not always female

Abstract

The Common Cuckoo (hereafter Cuckoo) shows two adult plumage morphs—adult male plumage is grey and adult females are either grey or, less frequently, rufous. The situation is less clear in juveniles, as both sexes exhibit variable proportions of grey and rufous colour. We thus describe the patterns related to sex-specific plumage colour variation in a central European Cuckoo population. We genetically determined the sex of 91 Cuckoo chicks and using visual classification of photographs we scored juvenile plumage colouration of individual chicks into five classes based upon the increasing proportion of rufous colour on feathers. To verify these scores, we sampled chick feathers and quantified the proportion of rufous colour of individual feathers by digital image analysis. We found that juvenile females had a higher proportion of rufous colour of feathers than juvenile males. However, the difference was marginally non-significant based on visual inspection alone, and some male chicks even showed intensively rufous plumage like those of juvenile females. In contrast, we captured only grey adult males (n = 37), while five out of 20 adult females were rufous. The rufous colour of Cuckoo feathers considerably differed from the grey colour and the difference seemed to be larger in adults than in juveniles. We show that chicks, unlike adult females, cannot be visually assigned to either of the adult morphs. Therefore, we encourage further investigation of Cuckoo plumage colouration across the species’ range to examine the process of plumage maturation. A detailed genetic analysis is necessary to understand the origin of Cuckoo feather colouration.

Zusammenfassung

Rotbraune Küken des Kuckucks sind nicht immer weiblich

Erwachsene Kuckucke zeigen zwei unterschiedliche Gefiederfärbungen—das Gefieder der Männchen ist grau, während adulte Weibchen entweder grau oder, etwas seltener, rotbraun gefärbt sind. Bei Jungvögeln ist die Situation nicht ganz so klar, weil beide Geschlechter unterschiedliche Anteile grauer und rotbrauner Färbung zeigen. Wir beschreiben hier für eine zentraleuropäische Kuckuck-Population die Variationen der geschlechtsspezifischen Gefiederfärbung. Mit genetischen Methoden bestimmten wir das Geschlecht von 91 Kuckuck-Küken und teilten dann optisch anhand von Photographien das Gefieder eines jeden einzelnen Jungvogels in eine von fünf Kategorien, je nach Anteil der rotbraunen Färbung, ein. Zum Verifizieren dieser Klassifikation bestimmten wir für eine Stichprobe der Vögel den rotbraunen Farbanteil einzelner Federn auch noch mit einer digitalen Bildanalyse. Wir stellten fest, dass weibliche Jungvögel in ihren Federn einen größeren Rotbraun-Anteil als männliche Jungvögel hatten. Aber dieser Unterschied war, zumindest für die visuellen Bestimmungen, nicht signifikant, und einige männliche Jungvögel zeigten sogar eine stärker rotbraune Gefiederfärbung als die weiblichen. Auf der anderen Seite fingen wir nur graue adulte Männchen (n = 37), während fünf von 20 adulten Weibchen rotbraun gefärbt waren. Die rotbraune Farbe der Kuckuck-Federn unterschied sich wesentlich von der grauen Färbung, und dieser Unterschied schien bei den adulten Tieren größer als bei den Jungvögeln. Wir zeigen, dass Küken im Gegensatz zu adulten Weibchen nicht alleine anhand einer visuellen Untersuchung einer der beiden Farb-Varianten von Adulten zugeordnet werden können. Deshalb regen wir weitere Untersuchungen sowohl der Gefiederfärbung von Kuckucken über die Artgrenze hinweg an als auch der Gefiederreifung. Ferner ist eine detaillierte genetische Analyse erforderlich, um die Grundlagen der Gefiederfärbung beim Kuckuck zu verstehen.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Miroslav Čapek, Václav Jelínek, Lukáš Kulísek, Boris Prudík, Gabriela Štětková and Klára Žabková for help with fieldwork, Vojtěch Brlík, Radka Poláková, Peter Samaš and Kateřina Sosnovcová for assistance in the field as well as for scoring the Cuckoo chicks and Marie Kotasová Adámková for helpful advice on the measurements of spectral reflectance. We are also grateful to two anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments, Petr Suvorov and Veronika Štočková for their support and to the managers of the Hodonín Fish Farm for permission to conduct the fieldwork on their grounds. This study was supported by the Czech Science Foundation (project 17-12262S) and by the Institutional Research Plan (RVO: 68081766).

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Correspondence to Jaroslav Koleček.

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All applicable international, national, and institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed (Czech permit MUHOCJ 34437/2014 OŽP). The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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Communicated by F. Bairlein.

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Koleček, J., Šulc, M., Piálková, R. et al. Rufous Common Cuckoo chicks are not always female. J Ornithol 160, 155–163 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10336-018-1591-7

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Keywords

  • Avian vision
  • Colour dimorphism
  • Cuculus canorus
  • Molecular analysis
  • Plumage colouration
  • Spectral reflectance