Begging Call Mimicry by Brood Parasite Nestlings: Adaptation, Manipulation and Development

  • Gabriel A. JamieEmail author
  • Rebecca M. Kilner
Part of the Fascinating Life Sciences book series (FLS)


Begging calls provide nestling brood parasites with a powerful and flexible tool for avoiding rejection, altering parental provisioning and competing with host nestmates. Despite much research into the topic, no synthesis of parasite vocal strategies for host manipulation has yet been made. In this chapter, we begin by reviewing the literature on reported similarity between the begging calls of avian brood parasites and their hosts. We show that such similarity is a more widespread phenomenon than previously appreciated. Secondly, we examine the selection pressures that drive the evolution of begging call mimicry by avian brood parasites, assess their importance and illustrate them with empirical examples. Finally, we propose a theoretical framework to explain variation in the ways that brood parasite begging calls develop. We suggest that the mode of development can be predicted from a consideration of the accuracy of genetic cues (as mediated by parasite specialisation levels) and the benefits to the young parasite of using environmental cues to modulate their begging call (as influenced by levels of discrimination shown by host parents). Perhaps the main contribution of this chapter is to highlight how little we know about brood parasitic begging calls. This points the way for future work on this topic.



We would like to thank Nick Davies, Cecilia de Mársico, Tomáš Grim, Manuel Soler, Claire Spottiswoode and Rose Thorogood for comments on earlier versions of this manuscript that have greatly helped to improve its contents. We also thank Naomi Langmore, Amanda Ridley and Claire Spottiswoode for making available unpublished information on little bronze cuckoo, Jacobin cuckoo and cuckoo finch begging calls, respectively. Our research is funded by a Research Project Grant from the Leverhulme Trust.


  1. Ali SA, Whistler H (1936) The ornithology of Travancore and Cochin. Part VI. J Bombay Nat Hist Soc 39:3–35Google Scholar
  2. Anderson MG, Ross HA, Brunton DH, Hauber M (2009) Begging call matching between a specialist brood parasite and its host: a comparative approach to detect coevolution. Biol J Linn Soc 98:208–216CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Briskie JV, Martin PR, Martin TE (1999) Nest predation and the evolution of nestling begging calls. Proc R Soc B 266:2153–2159CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Brooker M, Brooker L (1989) The comparative breeding behaviour of two sympatric cuckoos, Horsfield’s Bronze-Cuckoo Chrysococcyx basalis and the Shining Bronze-Cuckoo C. lucidus, in Western Australia: a new model for the evolution of egg morphology and host specificity in avian brood parasites. Ibis 131:528–547CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Butchart SHM, Kilner RM, Fuisz T, Davies NB (2003) Differences in the nestling begging calls of hosts and host-races of the common cuckoo, Cuculus canorus. Anim Behav 65:345–354Google Scholar
  6. Clunie F (1973) Fan-tailed cuckoo parasitises Fiji Warbler. Notornis 20:168Google Scholar
  7. Colombelli-Negrel D, Hauber ME, Robertson J, Sulloway FJ, Hoi H, Griggio M, Kleindorfer S (2012) Embryonic learning of vocal passwords in superb fairy-wrens reveals intruder cuckoo nestlings. Curr Biol 22:2155–2160CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  8. Courtney J (1967) The juvenile food-begging call of some fledgling cuckoos – vocal mimicry or vocal duplication by natural selection. Emu 67:154–157CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Davies NB (2011) Cuckoo adaptations: trickery and tuning. J Zool 284:1–14Google Scholar
  10. Davies NB, Kilner RM, Noble DG (1998) Nestling cuckoos, Cuculus canorus, exploit hosts with begging calls that mimic a brood. Proc R Soc B 265:673–678CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. De Mársico MC, Gantchoff MG, Reboreda JC (2012) Host-parasite coevolution beyond the nestling stage? Mimicry of host fledglings by the specialist screaming cowbird. Proc R Soc B 279:3401–3408CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  12. Dearborn DC (1998) Begging behavior and food acquisition by brown-headed cowbird nestlings. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 43:259–270CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Dearborn DC, Lichtenstein G (2002) Begging behaviour and host exploitation in parasitic cowbirds. In: Wright J, Leonard ML (eds) The evolution of begging. Kluwer Academic, DordrechtGoogle Scholar
  14. Dewar D (1907) An inquiry into the parasitic habits of the Indian koel. J Bombay Nat Hist Soc 17:765–782Google Scholar
  15. Erritzøe J, Mann CF, Brammer FP, Fuller RA (2012) Cuckoos of the world. Christopher Helm, LondonGoogle Scholar
  16. Feeney WE, Welbergen JA, Langmore NE (2014) Advances in the study of coevolution between avian brood parasites and their hosts. Annu Rev Ecol Evol Syst 45:227–246CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Fossøy F, Antonov A, Moksnes A, Roskaft E, Vikan JR, Moller AP, Shykoff JA, Stokke BG (2011) Genetic differentiation among sympatric cuckoo host races: males matter. Proc R Soc B 278:1639–1645CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  18. Fossøy F, Sorenson MD, Liang W, Ekrem T, Moksnes A, Moller AP, Rutila J, Roskaft E, Takasu F, Yang C, Stokke BG (2016) Ancient origin and maternal inheritance of blue cuckoo eggs. Nat Commun 7:10272CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  19. Frankenhuis WE, Panchanathan K (2011) Balancing sampling and specialization: an adaptationist model of incremental development. Proc R Soc B 278:3558–3565CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  20. Friedmann H, Kiff L (1985) The parasitic cowbirds and their hosts. In: Proceedings of the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology, vol 2, pp 225–304Google Scholar
  21. Fry CH, Keith S, Urban EK (2002) The birds of Africa, parrots to woodpeckers, vol 3. Christopher Helm, LondonGoogle Scholar
  22. Gibbs HL, Sorenson MD, Marchetti K, Brooke ML, Davies NB, Nakamura H (2000) Genetic evidence for female host-specific races of the common cuckoo. Nature 407:183–186CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. Gloag R, Kacelnik A (2013) Host manipulation via begging call structure in the brood-parasitic shiny cowbird. Anim Behav 86:101–109CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Gosper D (1997) Aspects of breeding of the common koel Eudynamys scolopacea and one of its biological hosts, the Magpie-lark Grallina cyanoleuca. Aust Bird Watch 17:11–19Google Scholar
  25. Grim T (2005) Mimicry vs. similarity: which resemblances between brood parasites and their hosts are mimetic and which are not? Biol J Linn Soc 84:69–78CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Grim T (2006) The evolution of nestling discrimination by hosts of parasitic birds: why is rejection so rare? Evol Ecol Res 8:785–802Google Scholar
  27. Grim T (2008) Begging behavior of fledgling rusty-breasted cuckoo (Cacomantis sepulcralis). Wilson J Ornithol 120:887–890CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Grim T, Kleven O, Mikulica O (2003) Nestling discrimination without recognition: a possible defence mechanism for hosts towards cuckoo parasitism? Proc R Soc B 270:S73–S75CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  29. Hauber ME, Kilner RM (2007) Coevolution, communication, and host chick mimicry in parasitic finches: who mimics whom? Behav Ecol Sociobiol 61:497–503CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Jamie GA, de Silva WG (2014) Similarity of the calls of juvenile pied cuckoo Clamator jacobinus and its Sri Lankan host species, yellow-billed babbler Turdoides affinis. Forktail 30:133–134Google Scholar
  31. Jaramillo A, Burke P (1999) New world blackbirds: the icteridae. Christopher Helm, LondonGoogle Scholar
  32. Joseph L, Wilke T, Alpers D (2002) Reconciling genetic expectations from host specificity with historical population dynamics in an avian brood parasite, Horsfield’s Bronze-Cuckoo Chalcites basalis of Australia. Mol Ecol 11:829–837CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  33. Jubb R (1952) Some notes on birds of Southern Rhodesia. Ostrich 23:162–164CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Jubb R (1966) Red-billed hoopoe and a greater honey-guide. Bokmakierie 18:66–67Google Scholar
  35. Kilner RM, Davies NB (1999) How selfish is a cuckoo chick? Anim Behav 58:797–808CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  36. Kilner RM, Noble DG, Davies NB (1999) Signals of need in parent-offspring communication and their exploitation by the common cuckoo. Nature 397:667–672CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Langmore NE, Kilner RM (2009) Why do Horsfield’s bronze-cuckoo Chalcites basalis eggs mimic those of their hosts? Behav Ecol Sociobiol 63:1127–1131CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Langmore NE, Spottiswoode CN (2012) Visual trickery in avian brood parasites. In: Hughes DP, Brodeur J, Thomas F (eds) Host manipulation by parasites. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  39. Langmore NE, Hunt S, Kilner RM (2003) Escalation of a coevolutionary arms race through host rejection of brood parasitic young. Nature 422:157–160CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  40. Langmore NE, Maurer G, Adcock GJ, Kilner RM (2008) Socially acquired host-specific mimicry and the evolution of host races in Horsfield’s bronze-cuckoo Chalcites basalis. Evolution 62:1689–1699CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  41. Langmore NE, Cockburn A, Russell AF, Kilner RM (2009) Flexible cuckoo chick-rejection rules in the superb fairy-wren. Behav Ecol 20(5):978–984Google Scholar
  42. Langmore NE, Stevens M, Maurer G, Heinsohn R, Hall ML, Peters A, Kilner RM (2011) Visual mimicry of host nestlings by cuckoos. Proc R Soc B 278:2455–2463CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  43. Leimar O (2009) Environmental and genetic cues in the evolution of phenotypic polymorphism. Evol Ecol 23:125–135CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Lichtenstein G (2001) Low success of shiny cowbird chicks parasitizing rufous-bellied thrushes: chick-chick competition or parental discrimination? Anim Behav 61:401–413CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Lord E (1956) The birds of the Murphy’s Creek district, southern Queensland. Emu 56:100–128CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Lyon BE, Eadie JM (2013) Patterns of host use by a precocial obligate brood parasite, the black-headed duck: ecological and evolutionary considerations. Chin Birds 4:71–85CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Madden JR, Davies NB (2006) A host-race difference in begging calls of nestling cuckoos Cuculus canorus develops through experience and increases host provisioning. Proc R Soc B 273:2343–2351CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  48. Marchetti K, Nakamura H, Gibbs HL (1998) Host-race formation in the common cuckoo. Science 282:471–472CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  49. McLean I, Waas JR (1987) Do cuckoo chicks mimic the begging calls of their hosts? Anim Behav 35:1896–1907CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Moksnes A, Røskaft E (1995) Egg-morphs and host preferences in the common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus): an analysis of cuckoo and host eggs from European museum collections. J Zool 236:625–648CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Morton ES, Farabaugh SM (1979) Infanticide and other adaptations of the nestling striped cuckoo Tapera naevia. Ibis 121:212–213CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Mundy P (1973) Vocal mimicry of their hosts by nestlings of the great spotted cuckoo and striped crested cuckoo. Ibis 115:602–604CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Pagnucco K, Zanette L, Clinchy M, Leonard ML (2008) Sheep in wolf’s clothing: host nestling vocalizations resemble their cowbird competitor’s. Proc R Soc B 275:1061–1065CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  54. Payne RB (2005) The cuckoos. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  55. Payne RB, Payne LL (2002) Begging for parental care from another species: specialization and generalization in brood-parasitic finches. In: Horn AG, Leonard ML (eds) The evolution of begging: competition, cooperation and communication. Kluwer Academic, DordrechtGoogle Scholar
  56. Payne RB, Woods JL, Payne LL (2001) Parental care in estrildid finches: experimental tests of a model of Vidua brood parasitism. Anim Behav 62:473–483CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Pfennig DW, Wund MA, Snell-Rood EC, Cruickshank T, Schlichting CD, Moczek AP (2010) Phenotypic plasticity’s impacts on diversification and speciation. Trends Ecol Evol 25:459–467CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  58. Potter EF (1980) Notes on nesting yellow-billed cuckoos. J Field Ornithol 51:17–29Google Scholar
  59. Price TD, Qvarnstrom A, Irwin DE (2003) The role of phenotypic plasticity in driving genetic evolution. Proc R Soc B 270:1433–1440CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  60. Ranjard L, Anderson MG, Rayner MJ, Payne RB, McLean I, Briskie JV, Ross HA, Brunton DH, Woolley SMN, Hauber ME (2010) Bioacoustic distances between the begging calls of brood parasites and their host species: a comparison of metrics and techniques. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 64:1915–1926CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Redondo T, Arias de Reyna L (1988) Vocal mimicry of hosts by great spotted cuckoo Clamator glandarius: further evidence. Ibis 130:540–544CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Reed RA (1968) Studies of the diderik cuckoo Chrysococcyx caprius in the Transvaal. Ibis 110:321–331CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Rivers JW (2006) Nest mate size, but not short-term need, influences begging behavior of a generalist brood parasite. Behav Ecol 18:222–230CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Rivers JW, Loughin TM, Rothstein SI (2010) Brown-headed cowbird nestlings influence nestmate begging, but not parental feeding, in hosts of three distinct sizes. Anim Behav 79:107–116CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Roldán M, Soler M, Márquez R, Soler JJ (2013) The vocal begging display of great spotted cuckoo Clamator glandarius nestlings in nests of its two main host species: genetic differences or developmental plasticity? Ibis 155:867–876CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Rothstein SI (1990) A model system for coevolution: avian brood parasitism. Annu Rev Ecol Syst 21:481–508CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Salewski V, Grafe TU (1999) New tape recordings of three West African birds. Malimbus 21:117–121Google Scholar
  68. Sato NJ, Tokue K, Noske RA, Mikami OK, Ueda K (2010) Evicting cuckoo nestlings from the nest: a new anti-parasitism behaviour. Biol Lett 6:67–69CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  69. Sato NJ, Tanaka KD, Okahisa Y, Yamamichi M, Kuehn R, Gula R, Ueda K, Theuerkauf J (2015) Nestling polymorphism in a cuckoo-host system. Curr Biol 25:R1164–R1165CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  70. Schuetz JG (2005) Reduced growth but not survival of chicks with altered gape patterns: implications for the evolution of nestling similarity in a parasitic finch. Anim Behav 70:839–848CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Serventy D, Whittell H (1962) Birds of Western Australia. Paterson Brokensha Pty, PerthGoogle Scholar
  72. Short LL, Horne JFM (2001) Toucans, barbets and honeyguides. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  73. Skead CJ (1946) Record of a young black cuckoo (Surniculoides clamosus). Ostrich 17:359–360Google Scholar
  74. Skead CJ (1995) Life-history notes on East Cape bird species (1940–1990), vols 1 & 2. Algoa Regional Services Council, Port ElizabethGoogle Scholar
  75. Soler M, de Neve L (2012) Great spotted cuckoo nestlings but not magpie nestlings starve in experimental age-matched broods. Ethology 118:1036–1044CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Soler M, Soler JJ, Martinez JG, Møller AP (1995) Chick recognition and acceptance: a weakness in magpies exploited by the parasitic great spotted cuckoo. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 37:243–248CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Spencer OR (1943) Nesting habits of the black-billed cuckoo. Wilson Bull 55:11–22Google Scholar
  78. Spottiswoode CN, Stevens M (2010) Visual modeling shows that avian host parents use multiple visual cues in rejecting parasitic eggs. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 107:8672–8676CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  79. Spottiswoode CN, Stevens M (2011) How to evade a coevolving brood parasite: egg discrimination versus egg variability as host defences. Proc R Soc B 278:3566–3573CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  80. Spottiswoode CN, Stevens M (2012) Host-parasite arms races and rapid changes in bird egg appearance. Am Nat 179:633–648CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  81. Spottiswoode CN, Kilner RM, Davies NB (2012) Brood parasitism. In: Royle NJ, Smiseth PT, Kölliker M (eds) The evolution of parental care. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  82. Steyn P (1973) Some notes on the breeding biology of the striped cuckoo. Ostrich 44:163–169CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Tokue K, Ueda K (2010) Mangrove gerygones Gerygone laevigaster eject little bronze-cuckoo Chalcites minutillus hatchlings from parasitized nests. Ibis 152:835–839CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Tuero DT, Gloag R, Reboreda JC (2015) Nest environment modulates begging behavior of a generalist brood parasite. Behav Ecol 27:204–210CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  85. Vernon CJ (1984) The breeding biology of the thick-billed cuckoo. In: Proceedings of the fifth Pan-African ornithological congress, pp 825–840Google Scholar
  86. Vernon CJ (1987) On the eastern green-backed honeyguide. Honeyguide 33:6–12Google Scholar
  87. Verzijden MN, ten Cate C, Servedio MR, Kozak GM, Boughman JW, Svensson EI (2012) The impact of learning on sexual selection and speciation. Trends Ecol Evol 27:511–519CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  88. West-Eberhard M (2003) Developmental plasticity and evolution. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  89. Whitman DW, Agrawal AA (2009) What is phenotypic plasticity and why is it important? In: Whitman D, Ananthakrishnan T (eds) Phenotypic plasticity of insects. Science, Enfield, NHCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of ZoologyUniversity of CambridgeCambridgeUK

Personalised recommendations