Parasitic Birds Have a Choice to Make

July 6, 2017

Fledgling pin-tailed whydah (left) accompanying an adult scaly-breasted munia (right) at San Joaquin Marsh in Irvine, Orange County, California, 29 July 2014. Photo by Jeff Bray.

Los Angeles is home to introduced species from all over the world. There are Cuban lizards in Echo Park, European slugs in our gardens, and Mediterranean flies in our orchards. But have you heard the one about non-native parasitic birds?

Pin-tailed whydahs are from Africa, but —  thanks to the pet trade —  are becoming common in Southern California. These birds are obligate brood parasites, which means they can’t build their own nests, so to reproduce, they stealthily lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, and let these unwitting adopted parents raise their young.

During mating season, male pin-tailed whydahs grow long black tails. Photo by Jeff Bray.

Unfortunately for the host birds who wind up with whydah eggs in their nests, it’s a pretty thankless job. They raise babies that aren’t theirs, sometimes to the detriment of their biological children. For busy parents, there is only so much food and attention to go around. 

Back home in Africa, pin-tailed whydahs take advantage of waxbill birds, seeking out their domed nests to lay their eggs. But here in Los Angeles, how are the pin-tailed whydahs managing to reproduce? What hapless bird is hosting these feathered parasites?

In an interesting urban nature twist, these introduced whydahs are parasitizing another species of introduced bird. Scaly-breasted munias from southeast Asia are playing host bird for the whydahs, whether they like it or not. 

This novel relationship was documented recently by Pasadena Audubon member and NHMLA volunteer John Garrett, NHMLA Ornithology Collections Manager Kimball Garrett (no relation), and photographer Jeff Bray.

Photo by Jeff Bray.

So how does this play out in the annals of L.A. urban nature? Is it good that an introduced parasite is going after another non-native species? Is the enemy of our enemy our friend? Nothing is ever quite so simple when ecology is concerned, so the long-term ramifications of this new relationship are unclear.

But wait, there’s more.

Yet another introduced bird is now in the mix. Orange-cheeked waxbills have arrived, one of the pin-tailed whydahs known host birds from Africa. Will the whydahs defer to their native host, or will they stay with their newly adopted host?

“We need to keep doing field work and rely also on birders and other citizen scientists to keep us apprised of what is going on,” said Kimball Garrett.

You can be a part of this urban nature drama series. Below are some of the known hangouts of pin-tailed whydahs around Southern California:

Los Angeles County

Orange County

If you see pin-tailed whydahs entering birds’ nests or young whydahs being cared for by other birds, take a picture or jot down some notes and send them to nature@nhm.org or upload observations to eBird

Watch out for those whydahs!  

Fledgling pin-tailed whydah being fed by an adult scaly-breasted munia at Riverdale Park, Anaheim, Orange County, California, 6 September 2014. Photo by Jeff Bray.

 

(Posted by: Katie McKissick)

3 Comments

Love this! Our amazing urban biodiversity. Thanks, Katie!

Omg that's interesting. Parenting problems in the bird world.

My first sighting of a Pin-tailed whydah (Vidua macroura) August 24, 2017, north Mission Viejo, Orange County, California. This bird was a mature male eating bird seed on the ground. Lonchura punctulata has been present here for several years.

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