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Little Bee-eater (Merops pusillus) feeding two Greater Honeyguide (Indicator indicator) fledglings in Botswana

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Many brood parasitic birds lay eggs that mimic their hosts' eggs in appearance. This typically arises from selection from discriminating hosts that reject eggs which differ from their own. However, selection on parasitic eggs may also arise from parasites themselves, because it should pay a laying parasitic female to detect and destroy another parasitic egg previously laid in the same host nest by a different female. In this study, I experimentally test the source of selection on greater honeyguide (Indicator indicator) egg size and shape, which is correlated with that of its several host species, all of which breed in dark holes. Its commonest host species did not discriminate against experimental eggs that differed from their own in size and shape, but laying female honeyguides preferentially punctured experimental eggs more than host or control eggs. This should improve offspring survival given that multiple parasitism by this species is common, and that honeyguide chicks kill all other nest occupants. Hence, selection on egg size in greater honeyguides parasitizing bee-eaters appears to be imposed not by host defences but by interference competition among parasites themselves.
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The most virulent avian brood parasites obligately kill host young soon after hatching, thus ensuring their monopoly of host parental care. While the host eviction behaviour of cuckoos (Cuculidae) is well documented, the host killing behaviour of honeyguide (Indicatoridae) chicks has been witnessed only once, 60 years ago, and never in situ in host nests. Here, we report from the Afrotropical greater honeyguide the first detailed observations of honeyguides killing host chicks with their specially adapted bill hooks, based on repeated video recordings (available in the electronic supplementary material). Adult greater honeyguides puncture host eggs when they lay their own, but in about half of host nests at least one host egg survived, precipitating chick killing by the honeyguide hatchling. Hosts always hatched after honeyguide chicks, and were killed within hours. Despite being blind and in total darkness, honeyguides attacked host young with sustained biting, grasping and shaking motions. Attack time of 1-5 min was sufficient to cause host death, which took from 9 min to over 7 h from first attack. Honeyguides also bit unhatched eggs and human hands, but only rarely bit the host parents feeding them.
Article
The brood parasitic Greater Honeyguide Indicator indicator frequently punctures one or more host eggs when laying its own. We investigated variation in egg puncturing to test the hypothesis that this behavior is adjusted adaptively and selects for host defenses in a coevolutionary manner. We first show that puncturing was indeed effective in reducing the number of host young that the honeyguide hatchling would have needed later to kill or to outpace in embryonic development. Within clutches, thicker shelled and rounder host eggs were more heavily punctured, implying that they were more difficult to damage effectively and that puncturing could exert selection on host egg properties. Moreover, host females laying clutches of relatively thick-shelled eggs were more likely to raise at least one of their own offspring successfully in spite of parasitism, implying selection in progress. We provide anecdotal evidence that heavily punctured clutches are sometimes deserted, suggesting a trade-off between the benefits of puncturing and this possible cost. Our data also support 2 consequent predictions: honeyguides should puncture clutches more intensely when laying late relative to the host and when parasitizing hosts with hatchlings likely to provide a more robust adversary to their own. Selection on host eggshell properties was also implied by honeyguide host species having thicker eggshells than congeneric nonhost species. Although correlational, these findings are consistent with the hypothesis that honeyguides modify their puncturing behavior in an adaptive manner and that their hosts are experiencing selection for laying thicker shelled and possibly more rounded eggs. Key words: brood parasitism, coevolution, egg shape, eggshell thickness, honeyguides, selection. (Behav Ecol)
Multiple feeding of a juvenile Cuckoo
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Two Greater Honeyguide Indicator indicator chicks in the nest of the Greater Striped Swallow Cecropis cucullata
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Tarboton, W. 2011. Roberts Nests and Eggs of Southern African Birds. Cape Town: Trustees of the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund. a 10B Winn Road, Southampton SO17 1EN, UK. E-mail: kbhoec@yahoo.co.uk b Dept. of Zoology, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge, CB2 3EJ, UK. E-mail: gaj29@cam. ac.uk