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Concept: Cuckoo


Mimicry of a harmless model (aggressive mimicry) is used by egg, chick and fledgling brood parasites that resemble the host’s own eggs, chicks and fledglings. However, aggressive mimicry may also evolve in adult brood parasites, to avoid attack from hosts and/or manipulate their perception of parasitism risk. We tested the hypothesis that female cuckoo finches (Anomalospiza imberbis) are aggressive mimics of female Euplectes weavers, such as the harmless, abundant and sympatric southern red bishop (Euplectes orix). We show that female cuckoo finch plumage colour and pattern more closely resembled those of Euplectes weavers (putative models) than Vidua finches (closest relatives); that their tawny-flanked prinia (Prinia subflava) hosts were equally aggressive towards female cuckoo finches and southern red bishops, and more aggressive to both than to their male counterparts; and that prinias were equally likely to reject an egg after seeing a female cuckoo finch or bishop, and more likely to do so than after seeing a male bishop near their nest. This is, to our knowledge, the first quantitative evidence for aggressive mimicry in an adult bird, and suggests that host-parasite coevolution can select for aggressive mimicry by avian brood parasites, and counter-defences by hosts, at all stages of the reproductive cycle.

Concepts: Bird, Cuckoo, Birds of Africa, Kleptoparasitism, Brood parasite, Southern Red Bishop, Euplectes


Consistent with a warming climate, birds are shifting the timing of their migrations, but it remains unclear to what extent these shifts have kept pace with the changing environment. Because bird migration is primarily cued by annually consistent physiological responses to photoperiod, but conditions at their breeding grounds depend on annually variable climate, bird arrival and climate-driven spring events would diverge. We combined satellite and citizen science data to estimate rates of change in phenological interval between spring green-up and migratory arrival for 48 breeding passerine species across North America. Both arrival and green-up changed over time, usually in the same direction (earlier or later). Although birds adjusted their arrival dates, 9 of 48 species did not keep pace with rapidly changing green-up and across all species the interval between arrival and green-up increased by over half a day per year. As green-up became earlier in the east, arrival of eastern breeding species increasingly lagged behind green-up, whereas in the west-where green-up typically became later-birds arrived increasingly earlier relative to green-up. Our results highlight that phenologies of species and trophic levels can shift at different rates, potentially leading to phenological mismatches with negative fitness consequences.

Concepts: Ecology, Bird, Cuckoo, Albatross, Human migration, Seabird, Change, Bird migration


Migratory birds track seasonal resources across and between continents. We propose a general strategy of tracking the broad seasonal abundance of resources throughout the annual cycle in the longest-distance migrating land birds as an alternative to tracking a certain climatic niche or shorter-term resource surplus occurring, for example, during spring foliation. Whether and how this is possible for complex annual spatiotemporal schedules is not known. New tracking technology enables unprecedented spatial and temporal mapping of long-distance movement of birds. We show that three Palearctic-African species track vegetation greenness throughout their annual cycle, adjusting the timing and direction of migratory movements with seasonal changes in resource availability over Europe and Africa. Common cuckoos maximize the vegetation greenness, whereas red-backed shrikes and thrush nightingales track seasonal surplus in greenness. Our results demonstrate that the longest-distance migrants move between consecutive staging areas even within the wintering region in Africa to match seasonal variation in regional climate. End-of-century climate projections indicate that optimizing greenness would be possible but that vegetation surplus might be more difficult to track in the future.

Concepts: Africa, Bird, Climate change, Europe, Cuckoo, Human migration, Season, Bird migration


Migrating birds follow innate species-specific migration programs capable of guiding them along complex spatio-temporal routes, which may include several separate staging areas. Indeed, migration routes of common cuckoos Cuculus canorus show little variation between individuals; yet, satellite tracks of 11 experimentally displaced adults revealed an unexpected flexibility in individual navigation responses. The birds compensated for the translocation to unfamiliar areas by travelling toward population-specific staging areas, demonstrating true navigation capabilities. Individual responses varied from travelling toward the first stopover in northern Europe to flying toward the Central-African winter grounds, the latter including several stopovers in unfamiliar areas. Apparently, the cuckoos possess spatial knowledge far beyond their population-specific flyway scale, and make individual decisions likely based on an assessment of perceived gain and cost of alternative route options.

Concepts: Cancer, Bird, Cuckoo, Spaceflight, Bird migration, Common Cuckoo, Cuculus, Flyway


Avian brood parasites lay eggs in the nests of other birds, which raise the unrelated chicks and typically suffer partial or complete loss of their own brood. However, carrion crows Corvus corone corone can benefit from parasitism by the great spotted cuckoo Clamator glandarius. Parasitized nests have lower rates of predation-induced failure due to production of a repellent secretion by cuckoo chicks, but among nests that are successful, those with cuckoo chicks fledge fewer crows. The outcome of these counterbalancing effects fluctuates between parasitism and mutualism each season, depending on the intensity of predation pressure.

Concepts: Symbiosis, Bird, Cuckoo, Mutualism, Common Raven, Brood parasite, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Clamator


Pattern-based identity signatures are commonplace in the animal kingdom, but how they are recognized is poorly understood. Here we develop a computer vision tool for analysing visual patterns, NATUREPATTERNMATCH, which breaks new ground by mimicking visual and cognitive processes known to be involved in recognition tasks. We apply this tool to a long-standing question about the evolution of recognizable signatures. The common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) is a notorious cheat that sneaks its mimetic eggs into nests of other species. Can host birds fight back against cuckoo forgery by evolving highly recognizable signatures? Using NATUREPATTERNMATCH, we show that hosts subjected to the best cuckoo mimicry have evolved the most recognizable egg pattern signatures. Theory predicts that effective pattern signatures should be simultaneously replicable, distinctive and complex. However, our results reveal that recognizable signatures need not incorporate all three of these features. Moreover, different hosts have evolved effective signatures in diverse ways.

Concepts: Evolution, Insect, Bird, Cuckoo, Knowledge, Pattern recognition, Common Cuckoo, Cuculus


Excessive or misdirected artificial light at night (ALAN) produces light pollution that influences several aspects of the biology and ecology of birds, including disruption of circadian rhythms and disorientation during flight. Many migrating birds traverse large expanses of land twice every year at night when ALAN illuminates the sky. Considering the extensive and increasing encroachment of light pollution around the world, we evaluated the association of the annual mean ALAN intensity over land within the geographic ranges of 298 nocturnally migrating bird species with five factors: phase of annual cycle, mean distance between breeding and non-breeding ranges, range size, global hemisphere of range, and IUCN category of conservation concern. Light pollution within geographic ranges was relatively greater during the migration season, for shorter-distance migrants, for species with smaller ranges, and for species in the western hemisphere. Our results suggest that migratory birds may be subject to the effects of light pollution particularly during migration, the most critical stage in their annual cycle. We hope these results will spur further research on how light pollution affects not only migrating birds, but also other highly mobile animals throughout their annual cycle.

Concepts: Bird, Cuckoo, Albatross, Seabird, Lighting, Light pollution, Bird migration, Bird flight


Globally, billions of flying animals undergo seasonal migrations, many of which occur at night. The temporal and spatial scales at which migrations occur and our inability to directly observe these nocturnal movements makes monitoring and characterizing this critical period in migratory animals' life cycles difficult. Remote sensing, therefore, has played an important role in our understanding of large-scale nocturnal bird migrations. Weather surveillance radar networks in Europe and North America have great potential for long-term low-cost monitoring of bird migration at scales that have previously been impossible to achieve. Such long-term monitoring, however, poses a number of challenges for the ornithological and ecological communities: how does one take advantage of this vast data resource, integrate information across multiple sensors and large spatial and temporal scales, and visually represent the data for interpretation and dissemination, considering the dynamic nature of migration? We assembled an interdisciplinary team of ecologists, meteorologists, computer scientists, and graphic designers to develop two different flow visualizations, which are interactive and open source, in order to create novel representations of broad-front nocturnal bird migration to address a primary impediment to long-term, large-scale nocturnal migration monitoring. We have applied these visualization techniques to mass bird migration events recorded by two different weather surveillance radar networks covering regions in Europe and North America. These applications show the flexibility and portability of such an approach. The visualizations provide an intuitive representation of the scale and dynamics of these complex systems, are easily accessible for a broad interest group, and are biologically insightful. Additionally, they facilitate fundamental ecological research, conservation, mitigation of human-wildlife conflicts, improvement of meteorological products, and public outreach, education, and engagement.

Concepts: Ecology, Weather, Bird, Cuckoo, Human migration, Bird migration, Bird flight, Ornithology


Although models of co-evolution between brood parasites and their hosts primarily focus upon the cost to hosts in the current reproductive bout, the impact of brood parasitism may carry-over to future reproductive attempts by altering resource allocation. Glucocorticoid stress hormones help mediate resource allocation to reproduction, yet they have rarely been examined in brood parasitic systems. Here we determined if shifts in parental care and corticosterone had carry-over effects on future reproductive effort in the rufous-and-white wren (Thryophilus rufalbus), a host of the Central American striped cuckoo (Tapera naevia). We found that parasitized parents had significantly higher stress-induced, but not baseline, corticosterone than natural parents during the fledgling stage, which was associated with changes in parental care. The high investment in current reproduction while parasitized may be due to the value of fledged chicks in tropical systems. This maladaptive response by parasitized parents was associated with delayed re-nesting and a reduced likelihood of nesting in the subsequent breeding season. Although a reduction in future reproductive effort can result from a combination of factors, this work suggests that fitness costs of brood parasitism are mediated by changes in corticosterone and parental care behavior that carry-over into subsequent breeding seasons.

Concepts: Reproduction, Cuckoo, Breeding season, Kleptoparasitism, Common Cuckoo, Brood parasite, Brood parasites, Striped Cuckoo


Hosts of brood-parasitic birds must distinguish their own eggs from parasitic mimics, or pay the cost of mistakenly raising a foreign chick. Egg discrimination is easier when different host females of the same species each lay visually distinctive eggs (egg ‘signatures’), which helps to foil mimicry by parasites. Here, we ask whether brood parasitism is associated with lower levels of correlation between different egg traits in hosts, making individual host signatures more distinctive and informative. We used entropy as an index of the potential information content encoded by nine aspects of colour, pattern and luminance of eggs of different species in two African bird families (Cisticolidae parasitized by cuckoo finches Anomalospiza imberbis, and Ploceidae by diederik cuckoos Chrysococcyx caprius). Parasitized species showed consistently higher entropy in egg traits than did related, unparasitized species. Decomposing entropy into two variation components revealed that this was mainly driven by parasitized species having lower levels of correlation between different egg traits, rather than higher overall levels of variation in each individual egg trait. This suggests that irrespective of the constraints that might operate on individual egg traits, hosts can further improve their defensive ‘signatures’ by arranging suites of egg traits into unpredictable combinations.

Concepts: Species, Symbiosis, Bird, Parasitism, Cuckoo, Kleptoparasitism, Common Cuckoo, Brood parasite