Evidence of long-term structured cuckoo parasitism on individual magpie hosts

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SummaryBrood parasites usually reduce their host's breeding success, resulting in strong selection for the evolution of host defences. Intriguingly, some host individuals/populations show no defence against parasitism, which has been explained within the frame of three different evolutionary hypotheses. One of these hypotheses posits that intermediate levels of defence at the population level may result from nonrandom distribution of parasitism among host individuals (i.e. structured parasitism). Empirical evidence for structured brood parasitism is, however, lacking for hosts of European cuckoos due to the absence of long-term studies.Here, we seek to identify the patterns of structured parasitism by studying great spotted cuckoo parasitism on individual magpie hosts over five breeding seasons. We also aim to identify whether individual characteristics of female magpies and/or their territories were related to the status of repeated parasitism.We found that 28·3% of the females in our population consistently escaped from cuckoo parasitism. Only 11·3% of females were always parasitized, and the remaining 60·4% changed their parasitism status. The percentage of females that maintained their status of parasitism (i.e. either parasitized or nonparasitized) between consecutive years varied over the study. Females that never suffered cuckoo parasitism built bigger nests than parasitized females at the beginning of the breeding season and smaller nests than those of parasitized females later in the season. Nonparasitized females also moved little from year to year and preferred areas with different characteristics over the course of the breeding season than parasitized females. Overall, females escaping from cuckoo parasitism reared twice as many chicks per year than those that were parasitized.In conclusion, our study reveals for first time the existence of a structured pattern of cuckoo parasitism based on phenotypic characteristics of individual hosts and of their territories.

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