Royal Society Publishing

Nestling competition, rather than supernormal stimulus, explains the success of parasitic brown-headed cowbird chicks in yellow warbler nests

Gabriela Lichtenstein, Spencer G. Sealy


Interspecific parasitic chicks are usually fed more than the smaller host young with whom they share the nest. This could be due to parasitic chicks having evolved exaggerated features that are preferred by the adults to the features present in their own young (the supernormal stimulus hypothesis). Alternatively, the success of parasitic chicks could be due to them being better competitors. We tested these hypotheses by studying the interaction between brown-headed cowbird chicks, Molothrus ater, and a common small host, the yellow warbler, Dendroica petechia. Parasitic chicks begged more intensively than the host's young and received most of the feeds. The relative height reached by the begging chicks of both species was the most important variable in determining their feeding success. Being larger and begging intensively, brown-headed cowbirds were better able to reach higher than the host's young, but at equal heights parasitic chicks were no better than the host's young at gaining feeds. It is suggested that the success of the brown-headed cowbirds when parasitizing yellow warblers is due to them physically out-competing the smaller young of their hosts, and not to them evoking a stronger response from the hosts by being a supernormal stimulus.