Virulence, the amount of harm a parasite inflicts on its host, is integral to elucidating the evolution of obligate avian brood parasitism. However, we lack information regarding how relatedness is linked to changes in behavior and the degree of harm that brood parasites cause to their hosts (i.e., virulence). The kin competition hypothesis combines theory from offspring signaling and parasite virulence models and states that the begging intensity of co-infecting parasites is driven by their relatedness, with concomitant changes in the degree of virulence expressed by parasitic young. We tested this hypothesis using the Brown-headed Cowbird Molothrus ater, an obligate brood parasitic bird whose virulence at the nestling stage is mediated by vigorous begging displays that are used to outcompete host young during feeding bouts. We found support for both predictions of the kin competition hypothesis: first, the begging intensity of cowbirds was greater in a population where cowbirds typically competed against unrelated host nestmates, relative to a population where they often competed against kin. Second, the greater intensity of begging in cowbirds was positively associated with decreased growth in host offspring during the developmental period. Given the dearth of studies on virulence in avian brood parasites, our results notably extend our understanding of how relatedness is linked to parasite behavior and virulence, and they highlight how spatially-isolated host populations can harbor different levels of virulence that are driven by competitive interactions between co-infecting parasites.
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