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Abstract

Nestlings of non-evicting avian brood-parasites have to compete for food with foster parents' own nestlings. The outcome of these competitive contests is determined mainly by body size differences between parasitic and host nestlings. As part of the coevolutionary arms race between brood parasites and their hosts at the nestling stage, it has been reported that some host foster parents discriminate against parasitic chicks and are reluctant to feed them. Here, by experimentally creating size-matched broods of different composition (only magpie Pica pica chicks, only great spotted cuckoo Clamator glandarius chicks or mixed broods), we show that great spotted cuckoo chicks starved in 20.2 per cent (17 of 84) of the parasitized magpie nests even in absence of size asymmetries, while in none (0 of 72) of the nests a magpie chick starved. As far as we know, this is the first record of non-evictor brood parasitic nestlings starving without being smaller than their host nestmates in a frequently used host species. Nest composition had no effect on chick starvation. The cuckoo nestling starved even in two of the nests occupied by only one cuckoo chick. Our results could be explained by (1) magpies being reluctant to feed cuckoo chicks; (2) parasitic chicks receiving lower-quality food items or cuckoo nestlings being sensitive to some particular component of the diet (e.g. cereal grains); and (3) the existence of cuckoo chick discrimination ability by magpie foster parents.