This DNA fingerprinting study investigates whether females of the brood parasite brown-headed cowbird, Molothrus ater, associate with their own juvenile offspring at feeding sites more often than would be expected by chance. Cowbirds lay their eggs in the nests of a variety of host species and, as far as is known, leave them to the care of foster parents. Using baited walk-in funnel traps, 36 adult female-juvenile pairs (or trios) of cowbirds were trapped. Blood samples were collected from these individuals to conduct DNA fingerprinting analyses, calculate similarity indices, and to compare S-values for the 11 comparisons of juveniles and the females with which they were caught with S-values of random pairings of juveniles and the females in adjacent gel lanes with which they were not caught. Overall band-sharing was significantly higher for the individuals trapped together than for the random pairings. These associations between juvenile cowbirds and their mothers could occur as a result of female cowbirds monitoring the development of their young in the nests where they have laid. Alternatively, nestling cowbirds in the nest could become familiar visually and locally with a female parent that is frequently in their territory and could follow her when she departs for feeding grounds. In either case these data suggest that adult cowbirds associate with juveniles, in some cases their own offspring, and that offspring may learn to function as cowbirds in part from this association.
Additional publication details
DNA fingerprint similarity between female and juvenile brown-headed cowbirds trapped together