Female cuckoo calls misdirect host defences towards the wrong enemy

  • Nature Ecology & Evolution 115201525 (2017)
  • doi:10.1038/s41559-017-0279-3
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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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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.

Author information


  1. Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, CB2 3EJ, UK

    • Jenny E. York
    •  & Nicholas B. Davies


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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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jenny E. York.

Electronic supplementary material

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Information, Supplementary Figures, and Supplementary References

  2. Supplementary Video

    Examples of reed warbler vigilance responses to cuckoo calls

  3. 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