Avian brood parasites lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, and impose the costs associated with rearing parasitic young onto these hosts. Many hosts of brood parasites defend against parasitism by removing foreign eggs from the nest. In systems where parasitic eggs mimic host eggs in coloration and patterning, extensive intraclutch variation in egg appearances may impair the host's ability to recognize and reject parasitic eggs, but experimental investigation of this effect has produced conflicting results. The cognitive mechanism by which hosts recognize parasitic eggs may vary across brood parasite hosts, and this may explain variation in experimental outcome across studies investigating egg rejection in hosts of egg-mimicking brood parasites. In contrast, for hosts of non-egg-mimetic parasites, intraclutch egg color variation is not predicted to co-vary with foreign egg rejection, irrespective of cognitive mechanism. Here we tested for effects of intraclutch egg color variation in a host of nonmimetic brood parasite by manipulating egg color in American robins (Turdus migratorius), hosts of brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater). We recorded robins' behavioral responses to simulated cowbird parasitism in nests where color variation was artificially enhanced or reduced. We also quantified egg color variation within and between unmanipulated robin clutches as perceived by robins themselves using spectrophotometric measures and avian visual modeling. In unmanipulated nests, egg color varied more between than within robin clutches. As predicted, however, manipulation of color variation did not affect rejection rates. Overall, our results best support the scenario wherein egg rejection is the outcome of selective pressure by a nonmimetic brood parasite, because robins are efficient rejecters of foreign eggs, irrespective of the color variation within their own clutch.
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