We constructed alternative spatial models at two scales to predict Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater) parasitism rates from land cover maps. The local-scale models tested competing hypotheses about the relationship between cowbird parasitism and distance of host nests from a forest edge (forest-nonforest boundary). The landscape models tested competing hypotheses about how landscape features (e.g., forests, agricultural fields) interact to determine rates of cowbird parasitism. The models incorporate spatial neighborhoods with a radius of 2.5 km in their formulation, reflecting the scale of the majority of cowbird commuting activity. Field data on parasitism by cowbirds (parasitism rate and number of cowbird eggs per nest) were collected at 28 sites in the Driftless Area Ecoregion of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa and were compared to the predictions of the alternative models. At the local scale, there was a significant positive relationship between cowbird parasitism and mean distance of nest sites from the forest edge. At the landscape scale, the best fitting models were the forest-dependent and forest-fragmentation-dependent models, in which more heavily forested and less fragmented landscapes had higher parasitism rates. However, much of the explanatory power of these models results from the inclusion of the local-scale relationship in these models. We found lower rates of cowbird parasitism than did most Midwestern studies, and we identified landscape patterns of cowbird parasitism that are opposite to those reported in several other studies of Midwestern songbirds. We caution that cowbird parasitism patterns can be unpredictable, depending upon ecoregional location and the spatial extent, and that our models should be tested in other ecoregions before they are applied there. Our study confirms that cowbird biology has a strong spatial component, and that improved spatial models applied at multiple spatial scales will be required to predict the effects of landscape and forest management on cowbird parasitism of forest birds.
Additional publication details
Evaluation of spatial models to predict vulnerability of forest birds to brood parasitism by cowbirds