The brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) is a generalist brood parasite that typically parasitizes many host species in a single bird community. Population recruitment in a generalist parasite should be diverse with respect to host species; however, host-specific rates of cowbird recruitment have not been reported in any host community, and the determinants of host quality are poorly known. We studied the combined influence of parasitism level, nest abundance, and host quality on community-level patterns of cowbird recruitment in New Mexico, USA. Our objectives were to: (1) evaluate patterns of host use and quality; (2) compare cowbird egg investment and recruitment among host species; (3) identify host species of most importance to cowbird recruitment. Cowbirds parasitized 11 host species, with five "major" hosts experiencing high parasitism levels (≥1 cowbird egg/nest) and six minor hosts experiencing low parasitism levels (<0.3 cowbird eggs/nest). Parasitism level was not correlated with host species abundance, host mass, host nestling period length, or host success at fledging cowbirds. However, tree-nesting hosts were parasitized more than ground-nesters, and foliage-gleaners more than sally-foragers and ground-foragers. Average estimated survival to fledging of cowbird eggs laid in active host nests was 0.19. Cowbird recruitment was diverse with respect to hosts but was less evenly distributed across the host community than was cowbird egg investment because western tanagers (Piranga ludovicianus) fledged cowbirds more successfully than other hosts. This success in western tanagers was due to high cowbird survivorship in tanager nests and may be associated with the larger body size of tanagers relative to other hosts.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics