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Abstract

Chicks of some avian brood parasites show high virulence by eliminating all host progeny in the nest whereas others develop in the presence of host nestmates. Common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) chicks are typically highly virulent parasites as they attempt to evict all host eggs and chicks soon after hatching. However, several features of nest design, including steep walls and/or cavity nests, may effectively prevent cuckoo hatchlings from evicting nestmates. A previous observational study showed low success of cuckoo chicks in evicting progeny of a cavity nester host, the redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus) but cuckoo chicks showed low survival both when reared alone or in mixed broods with host nestmates. Whether poor cuckoo performance was caused by eviction costs and/or by the effect of presence of host chicks per se remains unclear. We experimentally cancelled any potential eviction costs by removing host eggs immediately after the cuckoo hatched and creating mixed broods 5 days later when the eviction instinct of the cuckoo already ceased. Cuckoos that were forced to compete with host nestlings experienced lower provisioning rates, poorer growth, and lower fledging success than control lone cuckoos. Cuckoos in mixed broods that survived until fledging fledged later, and at lower masses, than those in the sole cuckoo group. Thus, the cuckoo gens specializing on redstarts is similar to other cuckoo gentes, whose chicks are more successful in evicting host nestmates, and it does not benefit from the presence of host brood. Cohabitation with host nestlings then should be viewed as a maladaptive by-product of host cavity nest design.