Study spread over 16 years shows cuckoos may be helping crows survive better
The cuckoo is well known for sneaking in her eggs into the crow’s nest, leaving the crow to take care of her chicks. In many cases, the crow could lose her own chicks. As defence, some species of crows fight back by either throwing the alien eggs out or mobbing the adult cuckoos, but all species have not developed this ability. It is hypothesised that the defence has not been developed as the contact between other crow species and the cuckoo is recent or that the costs outweigh benefits of developing the defence.
A16-year study now provides a new reason. This study shows that the cuckoo chicks actually protect crow chicks from predators. This means, basically, cuckoos aren't all that bad.
The study was carried out on great spotted cuckoos (Clamator glandarius) and the carrion crows (Corvus corone corone) in northern Spain. In this area, the cuckoo parasitize up to 67.7 per cent of crow nests.
Parasitised nests were found to have lower rates of predation-induced failure. Throughout the 16 seasons, parasitized and non-parasitized broods did not significantly differ in the number of crows fledged, though results suggest a slight benefit from raising a cuckoo, write the researchers in an article published on March 21 in the journal, Science. The parasitized nests were more successful in increasing crow population than the nests that were cuckoo-free—they were more likely to produce at least one crow fledgling.
Magic formula to ward off predators
The researchers say that the cuckoo chicks protect the nest by producing a chemical which wards off predators. This chemical is released when the chick is harassed. The researchers analysed this substance and found that it is made up of acids, indoles, phenols and several sulfur-containing compounds. When crow nest predators such as mammals and raptor birds were fed food treated with this chemical, the predators could not be attracted.
The team did not find any evidence that the presence of the cuckoo chick affected the quality of the crow's own offspring. The lead author of this study is Daniela Canestrari of Department of Biology of Organisms and Systems, University of Oviedo, Spain.
We are a voice to you; you have been a support to us. Together we build journalism that is independent, credible and fearless. You can further help us by making a donation. This will mean a lot for our ability to bring you news, perspectives and analysis from the ground so that we can make change together.
Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.