Spectral tuning and perceptual differences do not explain the rejection of brood parasitic eggs by American robins (Turdus migratorius)

Rebecca Croston, Mark E. Hauber

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


By laying their eggs in the nests of other birds, avian brood parasites impose the cost of rearing young upon their hosts. The recognition and rejection of foreign eggs are primary host defenses against costly brood parasitism. Hosts of parasitic brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) challenge coevolutionary theory because most cowbird hosts accept parasitic eggs despite their drastically different appearance from the hosts' own eggs. American robins (Turdus migratorius) are one of only 10 % of the over 200 potential cowbird host species to robustly reject parasitic eggs, but the mechanisms driving the sensory bases of foreign egg rejection remain elusive. Our research combined avian visual perceptual modeling and behavioral experimentation to investigate chromatic cues eliciting parasitic egg rejection in American robins. We assessed the effects of perceivable background color differences between real host and model parasite eggs, across all four avian photoreceptors, on rates of rejection of model eggs spanning in color across the entire avian spectral sensitivity range, and including immaculate model eggs matching the natural colors of robin and cowbird eggs. The results suggest that egg rejection in robins is driven by the overall perceivable difference in color between own and artificial eggs, and input from all four single-cone avian photoreceptors affects the rejection decision. The results, however, also reveal that when viewed by the avian eye, natural cowbird eggs appear more similar in background color to robin eggs than predicted by the high rejection rate of these parasitic eggs. This suggests that robins respond specifically to parasitism by cowbirds, despite an apparent lack of sensory tuning toward the detection of the background color of cowbird eggs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)351-362
Number of pages12
JournalBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Avian visual modeling
  • Brood parasitism
  • Brown-headed cowbird
  • Egg rejection
  • Ultraviolet reflectance
  • Visual ecology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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