How do brood parasites like cowbirds recognize potential mates once they mature?

Say you’re a cowbird chick (or cuckoo, etc.), raised by some other species like a warbler. You fledge, and then one day you mate with another cowbird (after presumably recognizing a call and/or courtship display), which is a completely different species than the warbler you were raised by. How does this happen? Where and how does that knowledge come from?


there are animals that just hatch and wander off into the world without a parent raising them. how do those animals recognize their own kind?


That means certain neuron connections are “built in” their brains from the start, including recognition of own kind, but what is interesting is that they learn their host from living with it, so they then choose where to lay eggs based on who raised them (at least cuckoos do that).


Welcome to the forum!
That question also bothered me, and I finally read somewhere that hearing the song/call triggers something in their brain that allows them to be attracted to their species. I could possibly track it down if you want.


Cowbirds have songs that trigger special response in young cowbirds brain and tells them they are cowbirds and not the species that raised them


What’s amazing to me is that cowbirds do learn from their own kind, rather than the idea of their behaviors and preferences being purely inborn/innate. What we have shown is that hearing the call of their own kind appears to initiate the learning process. Previous aviary studies have shown that they have the ability to mis-imprint on the host species (e.g. preferring canaries over cowbirds if left with them too long). However, we found that in the wild, young cowbirds seem to have a strong urge to depart the host’s care and roost in the fields. Perhaps this is where they end up hearing cowbird calls that they find attractive, which then starts the learning process (similar to imprinting).


Thanks for replying personally! One just has to love iNat for this amazing possibility to learn from the researchers themselfs

While you are here: I recall I once read an article about the european cuckoo which claimed, that the species would probably easily evolve into more species, as females tend to have a very strong preference for certain host types. … e.g. if the female was raised by a certain type of host it would later also chose this host for their own eggs. That article claimed that this behavioural separation in the female lineage would actually lead to speciation easily, but the only thing that keeps conecting those females are the males that really could not care less with which host they or a female was raised as long as they can breed. So they keep mixing up the lineages. I found that very interesting. Is that still the thinking in you brood parasitic bird specialists or is this bs?


Wow. So it’s sort of a delayed imprinting, at least until after zugunruhe-lite appears. Then, they metaphorically sneak off into the night and dance around a campfire. That’s really cool!

1 Like

This is a great question and I have taken note of the people who have responded with credible answers,. I have another question concerning parasitic breeding birds such as cuckoos and cowbirds. Here in Australia and other places we have a large species of cuckoo called the channel bill cuckoo or storm bird (Scythrops novaehollandiae). When these birds are active, female carries an egg in her bill, ready to deposit in the nest of another bird species. At these times other bird species obviously realise that the cuckoo is a threat and will aggressively mob them. If however, the female cuckoo can successfully deposit her egg in the nest of a host species, the unsuspecting foster parents will then raise the cuckoo chick, no questions asked. I have seen willy wagtails ( ( Rhipidura leucophrys) feeding a cuckoo chick 3 times their size. If evolution has taught birds that cuckoos flying around in their neighborhood are a threat, why is that it has not taught them that have an enormous strange looking offspring in your nest is something of a problem?


Because cuckoo chicks have giant bright orange/red mouths, hyperstimulating hosts to feed them. But hosts often leave nests with cuckoo egg, and it would make sense ecologically to have only few eggs survive to adulthood.
It’s actually interesting birds mob that cuckoo, as e.g. Cuculus look really like Accipiter just to scare off host from the nest, so there’s a chance they go after that cuckoo as it also looks like a predator for them?


This topic was automatically closed 60 days after the last reply. New replies are no longer allowed.