ABSTRACT

Obligate brood-parasitic birds never build nests, incubate eggs or supply nestlings with food or protection. Instead, they leave their eggs in nests of other species and rely on host parents to raise their offspring, which allows the parasite to continue reproducing throughout the breeding season. Although this may be a clever fitness strategy, it is loaded with a set of dynamic challenges for brood parasites, including recognizing individuals from their own species while growing up constantly surrounded by unrelated individuals, remembering the location of potential host nests for successful reproduction and learning the song of their species while spending time being entirely surrounded by another species during a critical developmental period, a predicament that has been likened to being ‘raised by wolves’. Here, I will describe what we currently know about the neurobiology associated with the challenges of being a brood parasite and what is known about the proximate mechanisms of brood parasite evolution. The neuroethology of five behaviors (mostly social) in brood parasites is discussed, including: (1) parental care (or the lack thereof), (2) species recognition, (3) song learning, (4) spatial memory and (5) pair-bonding and mate choice. This Review highlights how studies of brood parasites can lend a unique perspective to enduring neuroethological questions and describes the ways in which studying brood-parasitic species enhances our understanding of ecologically relevant behaviors.

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