Experimental shifts in egg–nest contrasts do not alter egg rejection responses in an avian host–brood parasite system

Mark E. Hauber, Zachary Aidala, Branislav Igic, Matthew D. Shawkey, Csaba Moskát

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Obligate brood parasitic birds exploit their hosts to provide care for unrelated young in the nest. Potential hosts can reduce the cost of parasitism by rejecting foreign eggs from the nest. Observational, comparative, and experimental studies have concluded that most hosts use the coloration and patterning of eggshells to discriminate between own and foreign eggs in the nest. However, an alternative hypothesis is that birds use the colour contrasts between eggshells and the nest lining to identify parasitic eggs (egg–nest contrast hypothesis). In support of this hypothesis, we found that the avian perceivable chromatic contrasts between dyed eggs and unmanipulated nest linings significantly and negatively covaried with the rejection rates of different dyed eggs of the great reed warbler Acrocephalus arundinaceus, a frequently parasitized host of the common cuckoo Cuculus canorus. To experimentally test whether egg–nest contrasts influence rejection, we reciprocally dyed both eggs and the nest lining of this host species with one of two colours: orange and green. Contrary to the egg–nest contrast hypothesis, host rejection patterns in response to dyed eggs were not altered by dyeing nests, relative to unmanipulated control eggs and nests. In turn, experimental egg colour was the only significant predictor of egg rejection rate. Our results demonstrate that egg–nest contrast is a collateral, not a causal factor in egg rejection, and confirm the conclusions of previous studies that hosts can rely on the parasitic egg’s appearance itself to recognize the foreign egg in the nest.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1133-1141
Number of pages9
JournalAnimal cognition
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 22 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Chromatic contrast
  • Coevolution
  • Egg rejection
  • Perceptual modelling

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology


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