We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More

Why Do Mockingbirds Accept Invaders' Eggs?

By Veronique Greenwood
Dec 22, 2011 10:35 PMNov 20, 2019 2:56 AM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

http://youtu.be/qvx5JD3VyxI In the form of brood parasites, the bird world has enough irresponsible moms to start a reality TV show: cowbirds, for instance, lay their eggs in other species' nests, stab most of the hosts' eggs to death, and then leave their offspring to be raised by the host parents. The standing explanation for this involves most host birds being not that sharp on the uptake (watch a tiny warbler fussing over a cuckoo chick ten times its size (above) and you'd think that too). But maybe, a new study suggests, it's sometimes to the host's benefit to let imposter eggs stay in their nests. The researchers chose mockingbirds as their hosts and cowbirds as their parasites, because mockingbirds usually fight like crazy to keep cowbirds of their nests but get strangely quiescent once the invaders have laid their eggs, a behavior that piqued the researchers' interest. Once all the birds in the sample population had laid, the researchers went around adding and removing eggs from nests to see whether having a certain number of cowbird eggs affected mockingbird survival. They found that mockingbird eggs that shared their digs with cowbird eggs and suffered repeated cowbird invasions were more likely to survive, apparently because when each cowbird arrived, it would stab a certain proportion of the eggs in the nest regardless of whether they were host eggs or the eggs of the previous cowbird. Letting the parasite's eggs stay, then, means that more of the host eggs avoid getting stabbed. The researchers conclude that when there are a lot of cowbirds around and hence a high probability of multiple nest hijackings, it makes sense for mockingbird parents not to shove out the invaders' eggs. Nice. And with all this dubious parenting and wanton violence, it's straight from an episode of Teen Mom meets Cops, no?

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.