The breeding behaviour of female Brown-headed cowbirds, Molothrus ater, is remarkably distinct from that of females of most other passerine species. Cowbirds are brood parasites that do not build nests, incubate eggs or feed young. Instead, they have an extended egg-laying stage, and deposit eggs in the nests of hosts within large breeding territories that are defended from other female cowbirds. In this communication, we report the changes in plasma levels of circulating hormones and in morphological characteristics that occur in free-living female Brown-headed cowbirds over a breeding season.
Plasma LH in female cowbirds increases at the onset of breeding and remains elevated for approximately eight weeks, at which time levels decline to basal values. This pattern is similar to that of follicle development, and is consistent with the prolific reproductive output by individuals of this species. Circulating E, levels are quite variable and do not demonstrate any discernible pattern, while plasma B is elevated during the egg-laying period and declines subsequently.
Testosterone titre (T) is highest early in the breeding season, when territorial interactions are generally most frequent. T levels decline slowly thereafter, reaching their lowest values at the season's end. Plasma DHT levels are slightly higher than those for T; DHT exhibits little change until late in the breeding season, when it declines. Fat scores are highest prior to egg laying, and fat reserves diminish as the breeding season progresses. In contrast, body weight increases during the reproductive season, probably as a result of developing eggs in the ovary. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that temporal patterns of hormone secretion are correlated with the expression of social systems.