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Does cowbird parasitism increase predation risk to American redstart nests?


  • Susan J. Hannon,

  • Scott Wilson,

  • Cindy A. McCallum

S. J. Hannon ( and C. A. McCallum, Dept of Biological Sciences, Univ. of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, T6G 2E9, Canada. – S. Wilson, Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, National Zoological Park, Washington DC 20008, USA.


Brood parasitism and nest predation are major causes of reproductive failure for many bird species nesting in fragmented landscapes. While brood parasites and predators may act independently, they could also interact if brood parasites increase the likelihood that predators detect nests. In this study, we examined the interaction between cowbird parasitism and nest predation in a 10 year study on 466 American redstart Setophaga ruticilla nests in central Alberta, Canada. We used advanced nest survival models to examine the support for three mechanisms that might lead to a positive correlation between brood parasitism and nest predation: 1) the presence of a cowbird nestling might increase the detection of the nest by predators, 2) nests with lower cover are more likely to be detected by both cowbirds and predators, and 3) cowbirds and predators may co-occur in landscapes of similar structure. Twelve percent of nests were parasitized and those nests had a 16–19% higher rate of failure due to predators compared to unparasitized nests. Daily nest predation rates increased during the nestling stage for both groups, but more strongly for parasitized nests. Loud begging by the cowbird nestling and/or higher parental feeding rates for the cowbird may have increased nest detectability to predators. Brood parasitism and nest predation were also positively related to forest cover, indicating landscape level effects were influential. Most nest predators were forest species and we suspect cowbirds responded positively to forest cover because of the increased abundance of songbird hosts. Nest-site features had less of an impact on nest predation or brood parasitism, although nests with higher overhead cover were less susceptible to predators. Our study shows how multiple mechanisms, particularly the behavioral effects of the brood parasite nestling and landscape structure, can lead to a positive relationship between nest predation and brood parasitism.