Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Egg recognition and counting reduce costs of avian conspecific brood parasitism

Abstract

Birds parasitized by interspecific brood parasites often adopt defences based on egg recognition but such behaviours are puzzlingly rare in species parasitized by members of the same species. Here I show that conspecific egg recognition is frequent, accurate and used in three defences that reduce the high costs of conspecific brood parasitism in American coots. Hosts recognized and rejected many parasitic eggs, reducing the fitness costs of parasitism by half. Recognition without rejection also occurred and some hosts banished parasitic eggs to inferior outer incubation positions. Clutch size comparisons revealed that females combine egg recognition and counting to make clutch size decisions—by counting their own eggs, while ignoring distinctive parasitic eggs, females avoid a maladaptive clutch size reduction. This is clear evidence that female birds use visual rather than tactile cues to regulate their clutch sizes, and provides a rare example of the ecological and evolutionary context of counting in animals.

This is a preview of subscription content

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

$32.00

All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Egg rejection on the basis of colour.
Figure 2: Difference in the length of the incubation period for paired parasitic and host eggs laid in the same nest on the same day.
Figure 3: Host clutch-size response to early-laid parasitic eggs.

References

  1. Shettleworth, S. J. Cognition, Evolution and Behavior (Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 1998)

    Google Scholar 

  2. Rothstein, S. I. A model system for coevolution: avian brood parasitism. Annu. Rev. Ecol. Syst. 21, 481–508 (1990)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Sherman, P. W., Reeve, H. K. & Pfennig, D. W. in Behavioural Ecology: An Evolutionary Approach (eds Krebs, J. R. & Davies, N. B.) 69–98 (Blackwell, Oxford, 1997)

    Google Scholar 

  4. Rothstein, S. I. Successes and failures in avian egg and nestling recognition with comments on the utility of optimality reasoning. Am. Zool. 22, 547–560 (1982)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Davies, N. B., Brooke, M. de L. & Kacelnik, A. Recognition errors and probability of parasitism determine whether reed warblers should accept or reject mimetic cuckoo eggs. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 263, 925–931 (1996)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Brooke, M. de L. & Davies, N. B. Egg mimicry by cuckoos Cuculus canorus in relation to discrimination by hosts. Nature 335, 630–632 (1988)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Davies, N. B. Cuckoos, Cowbirds and Other Cheats (Poyser, London, 2000)

    Google Scholar 

  8. Rohwer, F. C. & Freeman, S. The distribution of conspecific nest parasitism in birds. Can. J. Zool. 67, 239–253 (1989)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Eadie, J. M., Sherman, P. & Semel, B. in Behavioral Ecology and Conservation Biology (ed. Caro, T) 306–340 (Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 1998)

    Google Scholar 

  10. Andersson, M. in Producers and Scroungers (ed. Barnard, C. J.) 195–228 (Croom Helm, London, 1984)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  11. Lyon, B. E. . The Ecology and Evolution of Conspecific Brood Parasitism in American Coots (Fulica americana) Thesis, Princeton Univ. (1992)

    Google Scholar 

  12. Lyon, B. E. Brood parasitism as a flexible female reproductive tactic in American coots. Anim. Behav. 46, 911–928 (1993)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Lyon, B. E. Tactics of parasitic American coots: host choice and the pattern of egg dispersion among host nests. Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. 33, 87–100 (1993)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Lyon, B. E., Hochachka, W. M & Eadie, J. M. Paternity-parasitism trade-offs: a model and test of host-parasite cooperation in an avian conspecific brood parasite. Evolution 56, 1253–1266 (2002)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Kemel, R. E. & Rothstein, S. I. Mechanisms of avian egg recognition: adaptive responses to eggs with broken shells. Anim. Behav. 36, 175–183 (1988)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Jamieson, I. G., McRae, S. B., Simmons, R. E. & Trewby, M. High rates of conspecific brood parasitism and egg rejection in coots and moorhens in ephemeral wetlands in Namibia. Auk 117, 250–255 (2000)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Arnold, T. W. Conspecific egg discrimination in American coots. Condor 89, 675–676 (1987)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Jackson, W. M. in Parasitic Birds and Their Hosts (eds Rothstein, S. I. & Robinson, S. K.) 406–416 (Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 1998)

    Google Scholar 

  19. Bertram, B. C. R. The Ostrich Communal Nesting System 109–120 (Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, 1992)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  20. Davies, N. B. & Brooke, M. de L. An experimental study of co-evolution between the cuckoo, Cuculus canorus, and its hosts. II host egg markings, chick discrimination and general discussion. J. Anim. Ecol. 58, 225–236 (1989)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Haywood, S. Sensory and hormonal control of clutch size in birds. Q. Rev. Biol. 68, 33–60 (1993)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Andersson, M. & Eriksson, M. Nest parasitism in goldeneyes Bucephala clangula: some evolutionary aspects. Am. Nat. 120, 1–16 (1982)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Lyon, B. E. Optimal clutch size and conspecific brood parasitism. Nature 392, 380–383 (1998)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Gallistel, C. R. Counting versus subitzing versus the sense of number. Behav. Brain Sci. 11, 585–586 (1988)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Hauser, M. D. What do animals think about numbers. Am. Sci. 88, 144–151 (2000)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Seibt, U. Are animals naturally attuned to number? Behav. Brain Sci. 11, 597–598 (1988)

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

M. Andersson, J. Briskie, J. Eadie, R. Gallistel, G. Pogson, U. Seibt, S. Shettleworth, and in particular K. Wasson and A. Chaine provided comments on the manuscript. J. Estes, E. Geffen and C. Simms provided statistical advice. B. Bair, L. Cargill, S. Everding, L. Hamilton, D. Hansen, M. Magrath, and C. Morrill assisted in the field. P. Grant, R. Rubenstein and H. Horn provided advice during the study. The National Geographic Society, the National Science Foundation, the Chapman Fund and the Sigma Xi Society provided funding.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Bruce E. Lyon.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The author declares that he has no competing financial interests.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Lyon, B. Egg recognition and counting reduce costs of avian conspecific brood parasitism. Nature 422, 495–499 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature01505

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/nature01505

Further reading

Comments

By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.

Search

Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing