Response to a Dangerous Enemy: Should a Brood Parasite be Mobbed?


Dept. of Zoology, University of Canterbury, Christchurch 1, New Zealand.


Models of a long-tailed cuckoo and a song thrush (as a control) were presented 1.5 to 3 m from the nests of whiteheads, a species that the cuckoo is known to parasitize. Tests were conducted early in incubation (days 3 to 8) and during the nestling period. Most breeding females responded to the cuckoo by remaining inconspicuous or hiding. Other members of the cooperatively breeding group mobbed the cuckoo if they saw it. This difference in behaviour resulted in differences in overall response between incubation and nestling periods; the cuckoo was only occasionally mobbed during incubation because birds other than the female rarely approached the nest, whereas the cuckoo was almost always mobbed after eggs hatched. Cuckoos benefit from group breeding by whiteheads because chicks receive more food if reared by larger groups. I suggest that inconspicuous behaviour by the female in the presence of a cuckoo results in at least two effects: first, females can determine what the intentions of the cuckoo are, particularly if it intends to lay in the nest; second, no cues about size of breeding group are given to the cuckoo.

Comparisons are drawn with the recent study of PAYNE et al. (1985) on splendid wrens and Chrysococcyx cuckoos. Despite similar social behaviour, splendid wrens and whiteheads behaved differently in the presence of a cuckoo. Mobbing may not always be the most appropriate tactic when faced with a brood parasite.