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Evolution. 2005 Sep;59(9):2017-24.

Low survival of parasite chicks may result from their imperfect adaptation to hosts rather than expression of defenses against parasitism.

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Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Cornell University, Corson Hall, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA.


Host parents exhibit a variety of behaviors toward avian brood parasites, but not all of their actions have necessarily evolved in response to costs imposed by parasites. To investigate whether common waxbills (Estrilda astrild) have evolved defenses specifically against parasitic pin-tailed whydahs (Vidua macroura), I studied the specificity and flexibility of host behaviors toward nestlings at two sites that differed significantly in parasitism rates and intensities. I focused on documenting nestling survival because V. macroura young match the elaborate gape morphology of E. astrild nestlings, a pattern that suggests hosts may possess unique defenses against parasite chicks. Parasite young survived significantly worse than host young in mixed broods. However, this apparent discrimination was not associated with parasitism risk as would be expected if defenses had evolved specifically to counter parasitism. Parasite young may have survived poorly compared to host young because individual chicks were less able to stimulate sufficient care from foster parents or because they were more susceptible to nestling competition, disease, or reduced provisioning by hosts. Mortality may have also been exacerbated by poor timing of parasite egg laying. In nonparasitized and parasitized nests, rates of nestling survival were similar, further suggesting that parenting behaviors that result in chick mortality did not evolve solely in response to parasite young. In addition, orange-breasted waxbills (Amandava subflava) and zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata), rarely parasitized and nonparasitized relatives of E. astrild, experience similar levels of nestling mortality presumably as a result of phylogenetically widespread parenting strategies. Despite the similarity of parasitic V. macroura nestlings and E. astrild nestlings, I found no evidence that E. astrild parents possess defenses that allow for specific discrimination against parasite chicks during the nestling period. Rather than being subject to host defenses evolved in an arms race, Vidua chicks may simply be imperfectly adapted to life in the nests of their hosts.

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