The demographic significance of parasitism by Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater; hereafter “cowbirds”) has been debated for years, because manipulative studies are few and mathematical models of cowbird-host systems have not led to tests of their predictions. We combine results from a cowbird- removal experiment (Smith et al. 2002, 2003) with a stochastic simulation model that we developed, to reassess the effect of cowbirds on the annual reproductive success (ARS) and nesting success in Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia). Our model followed the breeding success of individual Song Sparrow nests and extrapolated to output variables including ARS, nest survival, and parasitism rates. We parameterized the model with field data from cowbird control sites (i.e., cowbirds not manipulated) and found that output variables matched those observed. We used the reduced parasitism rates observed on cowbird-removal sites, reran the model, and compared output with observed values. On removal sites, ARS was greater than predicted by the model, which indicates that the model failed to account for some biological phenomenon that occurred when cowbirds were in the system. To assess what this phenomenon might be, we conducted further analyses that indicated that cowbirds may facilitate nest predation by “conventional” predators. Using elasticity analyses, we show that cowbirds have their largest effect on ARS through egg removal and that conventional predators are more important than cowbirds in directly affecting nest survival rates. We report that to assess the effect of cowbirds on nest survival, researchers must avoid using the common technique of comparing survival rates of parasitized and unparasitized nests within populations.
Réévaluation de la Menace du Vacher