Female cuckoo calls misdirect host defences towards the wrong enemy

08 Sep 2017

Prey are sensitive to even subtle cues of predation risk which provides the evolutionary potential for parasites to exploit host risk perception. Brood parasitic common cuckoos (Cuculus canorus) lay their eggs in the nests of host species and their secretive laying behaviour enables them to evade host defences. Therefore, it seems paradoxical that female cuckoos often give a conspicuous “chuckle” call after parasitizing a host’s clutch. Here we show that this hawk-like chuckle call increases the success of parasitism by diverting host parents’ attention away from the clutch and towards their own safety. Our field experiments reveal that reed warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus) hosts paid no more attention to the “cuck-oo” call of the male common cuckoo than to the call of a harmless dove. However, the chuckle call of the female cuckoo had the same effect as the call of a predatory hawk in distracting the warblers’ attention and reducing rejection of a foreign egg. Our results show that the cuckoo enhances her success by manipulating a fundamental trade-off in host defences between clutch- and self-protection.