Nest size matters: common cuckoos prefer to parasitize larger nests of Oriental reed warblers

Abstract

Avian brood parasites leave parental care of their offspring to foster parents. Theory predicts that parasites should select for large host nests when they have sufficient available host nests at a given time. We developed an empirical experimental design to test cognitive ability of female cuckoos in nest size by studying nest choice of common cuckoos (Cuculus canorus) among nests of its Oriental reed warbler (Acrocephalus orientalis) hosts. We presented three groups of experimental nests: 1) nest dyads tied together including one large and one small artificial nest from reed leaves, 2) nest triads tied together used the old modified warbler’s own nests including enlarged, reduced and medium-sized nests, and 3) nest dyads are similar to group 1, but not tied together to elicit parasitism by common cuckoos. We predict that cuckoos prefer larger nest than medium one, the next is smaller nest. Our findings showed that common cuckoo females generally prefer large nests over medium or small sized nests in all three experimental groups. Furthermore, cuckoo parasitism was significantly more common than in previous studies of the same warbler population, implying that larger, higher and more exposed host nests effectively increased the probability of cuckoo parasitism.