Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 68, Issue 3, pp 351–362 | Cite as

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

  • Rebecca CrostonEmail author
  • Mark E. Hauber
Original Paper


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.


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



For financial support, the authors thank the CUNY Graduate Center, American Ornithologists’ Union, Animal Behavior Society, the PSC-CUNY grant scheme, and the Human Frontier Science Program. For discussions and assistance, the authors also thank Zachary Aidala, Jennifer Basil, Phill Cassey, Tomas Grim, Brani Igic, David Lahti, Lisa Manne, Csaba Moskát, Lainga Tong, Michael Webster, and Sarah Woolley.

Ethical standards

This study was conducted on private land with the express permission of landowners and following the protocols and permissions of institutional and governmental agencies. The protocol was approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committed of Hunter College (# MH 2/13-T3).


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© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Doctoral Program in Biology, Subprogram in Ecology, Evolutionary Biology and Behavior, The Graduate CenterCity University of New YorkNew YorkUSA
  2. 2.Department of Psychology, Hunter College and Doctoral Program in Psychology, The Graduate CenterCity University of New YorkNew YorkUSA
  3. 3.c/o Hauber Lab, Department of PsychologyHunter CollegeNew YorkUSA

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