Decision rules for egg-color-based rejection by two cavity-nesting hosts of the brown-headed cowbird

Alexander J. Di Giovanni, Juliana Villa, Mark T. Stanback, Charles F. Thompson, Scott K. Sakaluk, Mark E. Hauber, Daniel Hanley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Hosts of obligate avian brood parasites often evolve defense mechanisms to avoid rearing unrelated young. One common defense is egg rejection, for which hosts often rely on eggshell color. Most research has assumed that hosts respond to perceived color differences between their own eggs and parasite eggs regardless of the particular color; however, recent experiments have found that many hosts respond more strongly to brown foreign eggs than to equally dissimilar blue eggs. Yet, none of these prior studies tested a brown-egg-laying species and, with only one exception, all were conducted in open nests where light levels are considered sufficient for effective color-based egg discrimination. Here, we explored how two cavity-nesting hosts of the parasitic brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) the blue-egg-laying eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) and the brown-egg-laying house wren (Troglodytes aedon) respond to experimental eggs painted six distinct colors ranging from blue to brown. Rejection responses of both hosts were best predicted by perceived differences in color between themodel egg and their own eggs. Specifically, we found that house wrens preferentially rejected eggs bluer than their own eggs. However, although we found that bluebirds relied on perceived differences in color for their egg rejection decisions, further tests are needed to determine whether they preferentially rejected brown eggs or simply responded to absolute perceived differences in color. These findings demonstrate that these cavity-nesting birds treat perceived color differences in distinct ways, which has important implications on the coevolutionary arms races and the interpretation of avian-perceived color differences.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberjeb245188
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number14
StatePublished - Jul 2023


  • Brood parasitism
  • Color perception
  • Decision-making
  • Egg discrimination
  • Recognition

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Insect Science
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Aquatic Science
  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Physiology


Dive into the research topics of 'Decision rules for egg-color-based rejection by two cavity-nesting hosts of the brown-headed cowbird'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this