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Volume 567 Issue 7746, 7 March 2019

Best laid plans

The potential benefits — and drawbacks — of cheating are revealed in this week’s issue in a study of the nesting strategies of a tropical cuckoo called the greater ani (Crotophaga major). The birds usually opt for cooperative breeding, in which two or more females and their mates share a nest. But if this first nest is destroyed, some of the females will switch tactic and become brood parasites, laying their eggs in another nest and then abandoning them to be cared for by others. Using data from 11 years of field work in Panama, Christina Riehl and Meghan Strong reveal that the fitness pay-offs for the two breeding strategies are roughly the same. Although those females that opted for parasitism laid more eggs, the fledgling survival rate was lower because parasitic eggs often failed to hatch. Females that always bred cooperatively laid fewer eggs, but their offspring had a higher survival rate. The results suggest that the two breeding behaviours have evolved as alternative tactics for evading nest predators.

Cover image: Oyvind Martinsen - Panama Wildlife/Alamy

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