Hawk mimicry in cuckoos and anti-parasitic aggressive behavior of barn swallows in Denmark and China

Wei Liang, Anders Pape Møller

Published online: 
6 November 2014

Hosts of brood parasites defend their nests against parasitism by aggression and subsequently, if parasitized, by rejection of the parasite egg or nestling. Cuckoos have evolved plumage mimicry with convergence towards the phenotype of Accipiter hawks that are common predators of cuckoo hosts. Here we tested two alternative hypotheses 1) whether barn swallows Hirundo rustica have evolved less aggressive behavior towards cuckoos in areas of sympatry with more abundant Accipiter hawks; and 2) whether barn swallows have evolved more aggressive anti-parasite behavior in areas with a single species of cuckoo. We presented dummies of common cuckoo Cuculus canorus, sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus and Oriental turtledove Streptopelia orientalis (a benign control) at the nests of barn swallows during breeding, while recording intensity of response and proximity of barn swallows to the dummy. We demonstrated that cuckoos moved away when attacked aggressively and approached more closely by barn swallows showing that barn swallow behavior was efficient at driving away cuckoos. Barn swallows were significantly more aggressive and approached cuckoo and sparrowhawk dummies more closely in Denmark than in China, despite sparrowhawks being relatively more common in Denmark. Responses towards cuckoo dummies differed from responses towards sparrowhawk dummies, showing that barn swallows distinguished between the two different causes of danger. These findings are inconsistent with a less aggressive response towards cuckoo dummies in areas of sympatry with more abundant Accipiter hawks, but consistent with the alternative hypothesis that barn swallows have evolved more aggressive behavior towards cuckoos in areas with a single species of brood parasite, but not in areas with multiple species of parasites, where it is harder for hosts to tell the difference.

Doi
10.1111/jav.00515