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Female cuckoo calls misdirect host defences towards the wrong enemy


Prey are sensitive to even subtle cues of predation risk, which provides the evolutionary potential for parasites to exploit host risk perception. Brood parasitic common cuckoos (Cuculus canorus) lay their eggs in the nests of host species and their secretive laying behaviour enables them to evade host defences. Therefore, it seems paradoxical that female cuckoos often give a conspicuous ‘chuckle’ call after parasitizing a host’s clutch. Here, we show that this hawk-like chuckle call increases the success of parasitism by diverting host parents’ attention away from the clutch and towards their own safety. In our field experiments, reed warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus) hosts paid no more attention to the ‘cuck-oo’ call of the male common cuckoo than the call of a harmless dove. However, the chuckle call of the female cuckoo had the same effect as the call of a predatory hawk in distracting the warblers’ attention and reducing rejection of a foreign egg. Our results show that the female cuckoo enhances her success by manipulating a fundamental trade-off in host defences between clutch and self-protection.

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Fig. 1: Reed warblers and tits were more likely to become vigilant in response to female cuckoo and hawk calls than calls of a male cuckoo or dove.
Fig. 2: Reed warblers were more likely to accept a foreign egg after playback of female cuckoo or hawk calls than after the calls of a male cuckoo or dove.


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We thank the National Trust for permission to work on Wicken Fen, Natural England for the licenses, H. Rowland, J. Mackenzie and T. Dixit for field assistance, C. Spottiswoode and A. Jungwirth for comments, and especially D. Cram for comments and assistance throughout. This work was funded by Natural Environment Research Council grant NE/M00807X/1.

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J.E.Y. and N.B.D. contributed equally to the field experiments and writing of the manuscript. J.E.Y. analysed the data.

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Correspondence to Jenny E. York.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information, Supplementary Figures, and Supplementary References

Supplementary Video

Examples of reed warbler vigilance responses to cuckoo calls

Supplementary Data

Dataset supporting analyses in the main text, from each of the three experiments: Experiment 1 (tab 1), vigilance in reed warblers (cuckoo hosts); Experiment 2 (tab 2), vigilance in great tits and blue tits (not cuckoo hosts); Experiment 3 (tab 3), nest defences in reed warbler hosts

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York, J.E., Davies, N.B. Female cuckoo calls misdirect host defences towards the wrong enemy. Nat Ecol Evol 1, 1520–1525 (2017).

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