Journal of Ornithology

, Volume 149, Issue 3, pp 313–321

UV reflectance of eggs of brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) and accepter and rejecter hosts


    • Department of Biological SciencesUniversity of Manitoba
    • Department of BiologyKutztown University
  • Spencer G. Sealy
    • Department of Biological SciencesUniversity of Manitoba
Original Article

DOI: 10.1007/s10336-007-0272-8

Cite this article as:
Underwood, T.J. & Sealy, S.G. J Ornithol (2008) 149: 313. doi:10.1007/s10336-007-0272-8


Many hosts of obligate brood parasites accept parasitic eggs despite the high costs of parasitism. Acceptance is particularly perplexing in brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) (hereafter “cowbird”) hosts because the eggs of cowbirds and most hosts do not appear to match closely in visual characteristics detectable by humans. However, recent evidence suggests that parasite and host eggs may match in their ultraviolet (UV) reflectance, undetectable by humans, and that birds may use UV signals for egg discrimination. We determined whether egg colour matching in UV reflectance separates accepters and rejecters of cowbird parasitism by comparing the total UV (300–400 nm) reflectance of the eggs of 11 host species to cowbird eggs. Eggs of three of five accepter species and five of five rejecter species differed significantly from cowbird eggs in UV reflectance. We found no significant difference in the UV reflectance of the eggs of three closely related pairs of accepter and rejecter species. There also was no significant difference in the UV reflectance of cowbird eggs laid in nests of five host species, and the UV reflectance of cowbird eggs was not significantly correlated with that of host clutches. Thus, we found no support for the UV-matching hypothesis in brown-headed cowbirds and UV reflectance does not appear to separate accepters and rejecters of parasitism. Differences in UV reflectance between cowbird and host eggs, however, provide potential cues for use in egg discrimination. Experimental testing is needed to determine the relative importance of UV reflectance compared to other visual cues.


Brood parasitism UV reflectance Egg discrimination Brown-headed cowbird Molothrus ater

Copyright information

© Dt. Ornithologen-Gesellschaft e.V. 2008