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Parasitism at the Landscape Scale: Cowbirds Prefer Forests

D. Caldwell Hahn and Jeff S. Hatfield
Conservation Biology
Vol. 9, No. 6 (Dec., 1995), pp. 1415-1424
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2387187
Page Count: 10
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Parasitism at the Landscape Scale: Cowbirds Prefer Forests
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Abstract

Landscape-scale examination of parasitism patterns of Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) revealed heterogeneous parasitism rates across the mosaic of a forest and associated old-field communities. In a two-year study in Dutchess County, New York, we found a significantly higher parasitism rate in the forest-interior community (n = 301 nests; 17 species) than on the species in the adjacent and nearby old field and edge (n = 328 nests; 15 species; 32.3% versus 6.5%; p < 0.0001). Cowbirds invaded a mature 1300-ha forest stand even when their traditional host species were available in adjacent old-field and edge habitats. The forest and old-field study areas were located in a 38,000-ha township with 55% forest cover and contained numerous agriculture, dairy, and horse farms that provided favorable habitat for cowbirds. Within-forest examination of parasitism patterns revealed four aspects of cowbird parasitism that contrasted with patterns described in other regions: (1) parasitism was concentrated significantly more often on ground- and low-nesting (nests ≤ 1 m) forest species than on medium- and high-nesting species (nests > 1 m; 35.01% versus 29.93%; p = 0.0393); (2) parasitism was not significantly greater on Neotropical migrant species than on short-distance migrants and residents; (3) the parasitism rate was not not higher in nests close to edges; and (4) the parasitism level was low on certain forest species (such as Wood Thrush) that have experienced high parasitism levels in the Midwest. From a management perspective these data suggest that cowbirds exhibit regional differences in host and habitat use; the target host community of a particular cowbird population is unpredictable at the landscape scale; and a landscape scale should be used in designing cowbird studies to accurately assess local population dynamics.

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