Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 61, Issue 3, pp 455–463 | Cite as

Mechanism of egg recognition in defenses against conspecific brood parasitism: American coots (Fulica americana) know their own eggs

  • Bruce Lyon
Original Article


Hosts of avian brood parasites use a variety of defenses based on egg recognition to reduce the costs of parasitism; the most important of which is rejecting the parasitic eggs. Two basic recognition mechanisms are possible: “true recognition”, whereby hosts recognize their own eggs irrespective of their relative frequency in the clutch, and minority recognition (or “recognition by discordancy”), whereby hosts respond to the minority egg type. The mechanism of recognition has been experimentally studied in a handful of species parasitized by interspecific brood parasites, but the mechanism used in defenses against conspecific brood parasitism is unknown. I experimentally determined the mechanism of egg recognition in American coots (Fulica americana), a species with high levels of conspecific brood parasitism, egg recognition, and rejection. I swapped eggs between pairs of nests to alter frequencies of host and “parasite” eggs and then used two criteria for recognition: egg rejection and nonrandom incubation positions in the clutch. Eight of 12 nests (66%) given equal frequencies of host and parasite eggs showed evidence of true recognition. In contrast, only one of eight (12.5%) nests where host eggs were in the minority showed evidence of recognition by discordancy. The nonrandom incubation positions of parasitic eggs indicates that birds sometimes recognize parasitic eggs without rejecting them and provides a means of assessing recognition on a per nest basis in species with large clutches. Adaptive recognition without rejection may also be an important evolutionary stepping stone to the evolution of egg rejection in some taxa.


Egg recognition Recognition mechanism Egg rejection Brood parasitism American coot 



Alexis Chaine, David Lahti, and two anonymous reviewers provided helpful comments on the manuscript. Brad Bair, Louise Cargill, Susie Everding, Linda Hamilton, Daniel Hansen, Michael Magrath, and Carolyn Morrill assisted with fieldwork. Veera Bonner, Phil Ransen, Dave Falconer, Ron Boychuk, Brian Nuttall, and Ducks Unlimited Canada provided logistic support. The Chapman Fund of the American Museum of Natural History, the National Geographic Society, a dissertation improvement grant from the National Science Foundation, Princeton University, and the Sigma Xi Society provided financial support for the fieldwork and I was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF 0443807) during analysis and writing. The research was conducted under permits from the Canadian Wildlife Service and the Animal Care Committee of Princeton University.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Ecology and Evolutionary BiologyUniversity of CaliforniaSanta CruzUSA

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