Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Ousted cuckoo?

An adult male Lapland Bunting Calcarius lapponicus 

While surveying birds in northern Norway I came across a Lapland Bunting nest, which is not too unusual as they are common birds in the tundra there, although there was something different about this one. There were chicks in the nest as well as an unhatched egg and an eggshell, again nothing unusual there, except that the eggshell was of the wrong colouring for a Lapland Bunting egg.

The eggshell was a dull blue colour with brown freckling,
unlike the grey-brown background with scribbly line markings of the bunting egg

I immediately thought of a Cuckoo Cuculus canorus having laid an egg in the nest, so I checked the young to see if any were a cuckoo. None were, so what had happened? Thinking it through, the only explanation I can think of is that the buntings had detected the cuckoo when it hatched and ousted it from the nest.

The cuckoo egg did not resemble those of the buntings. It was more like a composite match between a Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis and a Red-Spotted Bluethroat Luscinia svecica - two other common passerines in the area, and likely species to be targeted by cuckoos. Pipit eggs are grey-brown with dark brown freckles, and bluethroat eggs are dull blue coloured with tiny faint freckles. Yet this egg seemed to still pass unnoticed by the hosts.

The cuckoo eggshell on the left, the unhatched bunting egg on the right

I checked the nest a few days later and all the chicks, four, were alive and similar in plumage - all were buntings. So it seems that a cuckoo had failed in its attempt to dupe the buntings into rearing its chick. They perhaps detected the cuckoo chick when it hatched as different from their own and ejected it. This must happen more often than we assume, for there is an arms race between cuckoos and their hosts. In this case the cuckoo seemed to have laid its egg too late for the chick to gain the advantage of hatching first and ousting the buntings' eggs or newly hatched chicks.

Then, why had the cuckoo laid its egg in a bunting nest, were there too few pipits or bluethroat nests with eggs for it to parasitise in this late cold Spring?

The growing bunting chicks

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