, Volume 61, Issue 3, pp 475-485
Date: 07 Nov 2006

Environmental conditions influence egg color of reed warblers Acrocephalus scirpaceus and their parasite, the common cuckoo Cuculus canorus

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The outer layer of the eggshell in birds is in many cases covered by pigments that are assumed to be genetically determined traits with a negligible environmental component. To test the hypothesis that spring environmental conditions (i.e., temperature and rainfall) may affect bird egg pigmentation, we measured by spectrophotometry and photography egg coloration and spottiness on reed warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus L.) clutches parasitized by the common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus L.) collected over a period of 24 years and preserved in the Zoological Museum, Copenhagen, Denmark. In addition, we investigated whether spring environmental conditions may influence the coevolutionary relationship between the cuckoo and its host via changes in cuckoo–host egg matching. Generalized mixed models revealed that reed warbler eggs were more brilliant in those springs with a higher rainfall and tended to be bluer and greener in springs with a lower relative temperature. On the other hand, cuckoo eggs were bluer and greener in springs with a higher rainfall. Cuckoo–host egg matching in blue-greenness and spottiness was better in springs with a higher rainfall. These results provide support for the existence of an environmental component on bird egg coloration and suggest that environmental factors may potentially affect the outcome of important features of the arms race between cuckoos and reed warblers.

Communicated by M. Soler