Animal Cognition

, Volume 18, Issue 6, pp 1373–1377 | Cite as

Nest sanitation elicits egg discrimination in cuckoo hosts

  • Canchao Yang
  • Min Chen
  • Longwu Wang
  • Wei Liang
  • Anders Pape Møller
Short Communication


Nest sanitation is a nearly universal behavior in birds, while egg discrimination is a more specific adaptation that has evolved to counter brood parasitism. These two behaviors are closely related with nest sanitation being the ancestral behavior, and it has been hypothesized to constitute a preadaptation for egg discrimination. However, previous studies found little evidence to support this hypothesis. Here, we conducted an empirical test of the association between nest sanitation and egg discrimination in the barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) by inserting a single non-mimetic model egg or a non-mimetic model egg plus half a peanut shell into host nests. Compared to the rejection rate of single model eggs, barn swallows significantly increased egg rejection frequency if a half peanut shell was simultaneously introduced. Our result for the first time shows the impact of nest sanitation on egg discrimination and demonstrates that nest sanitation can elicit egg discrimination in hosts of brood parasites. This study provided evidence for nest sanitation being a preadaptation to egg discrimination by facilitating egg rejection, thereby significantly advancing our understanding of avian cognition of foreign objects. Furthermore, we suggest that egg discrimination behavior in many accepters and intermediate rejecters may be lost or diluted. Such egg discrimination can be elicited and restored after nest sanitation, implying a sensitive and rapid phenotypic response to increased risk of parasitism. Our study offers a novel perspective for investigating the role of so-called intermediate rejecter individuals or species in the long-term coevolutionary cycle between brood parasites and their hosts.


Egg rejection Evolutionary lag Hirundo rustica Intermediate rejecter Nest cleaning 



We would like to thank Jianhua Ma for assistance with fieldwork and Zhalong National Nature Reserve for their support and help. This work was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Nos. 31260514 to CY, 31272328 and 31472013 to WL) and Program for New Century Excellent Talents in University (NCET-13-0761 to CY). The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Ethical standards

The experiments comply with the current laws of China, where they were performed. Fieldwork was carried out under the permission from Zhalong National Nature Reserve.


  1. Bártol I, Moskát C, Karcza Z, Kisbenedek T (2003) Great reed warblers bury artificial objects, not only cuckoo eggs. Acta Zool Acad Sci Hung 49:111–114Google Scholar
  2. Davies NB (2000) Cuckoos, cowbirds and other cheats. T. & A. D. Poyser, LondonGoogle Scholar
  3. Davies NB (2011) Cuckoo adaptations: trickery and tuning. J Zool 284:1–14CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Davies NB, de Brooke ML (1989) An experimental study of co-evolution between the cuckoo Cuculus canorus and its hosts. I: Host egg discrimination. J Anim Ecol 58:207–224CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Davies NB, Welbergen JA (2009) Social transmission of a host defense against cuckoo parasitism. Science 324:1318CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. Guigueno MF, Sealy SG (2009) Nest sanitation plays a role in egg burial by yellow warblers. Ethology 115:247–256CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Guigueno MF, Sealy SG (2012) Nest sanitation in passerine birds: Implications for egg rejection in hosts of brood parasites. J Ornithol 153:35–52CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Hansell M (2000) Bird nests and construction behaviour. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Kemal RE, Rothstein SI (1988) Mechanisms of avian egg recognition: adaptive responses to eggs with broken shells. Anim Behav 36:175–183CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Lahti DC (2006) Persistence of egg recognition in the absence of cuckoo brood parasitism: pattern and mechanism. Evolution 60:157–168CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  11. Liang W, Yang C, Wang L, Møller AP (2013) Avoiding parasitism by breeding indoors: cuckoo parasitism of hirundines and rejection of eggs. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 67:913–918CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Lotem A, Nakamura H, Zahavi A (1992) Rejection of cuckoo eggs in relation to host age: a possible evolutionary equilibrium. Behav Ecol 3:128–132CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. McMaster DG, Sealy SG (1998) Red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) accept prematurely hatching brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater). Bird Behav 12:67–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Moksnes A, Røskaft E, Korsnes L (1993) Rejection of cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) eggs by meadow pipits (Anthus pratensis). Behav Ecol 4:120–127CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Møller AP (2010) The fitness benefit of association with humans: elevated success of birds breeding indoors. Behav Ecol 21:913–918CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Moskát C (2005) Nest defence an egg rejection in great reed warblers over the breeding cycle: are they synchronized with the risk of brood parasitism? Ann Zool Fennici 42:579–586Google Scholar
  17. Moskát C, Hauber ME (2007) Conflict between egg recognition and egg rejection decisions in common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) hosts. Anim Cogn 10:377–386CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  18. Moskát C, Székely T, Kisbenedek T, Karcza Z, Bártol I (2003) The importance of nest cleaning in egg rejection behaviour of great reed warblers Acrocephalus arundinaceus. J Avian Biol 34:16–19CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Peer BD, Sealy SG (2004) Correlates of egg rejection in hosts of the brown-headed cowbird. Condor 106:580–599CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Poláček M, Griggio M, Bartíková M, Hoi H (2013) Nest sanitation as the evolutionary background for egg ejection behaviour and the role of motivation for object removal. PLoS One 8(11):e78771PubMedCentralCrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  21. Rothstein SI (1975) An experimental and teleonomic investigation of avian brood parasitism. The Condor 77:250–271CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Sealy SG, Lorenzana JC (1997) Yellow warblers (Dendroica petechia) do not recognize their own eggs. Bird Behav 12:57–66CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Soler M (2011) Could egg rejection behaviour be transmitted by social learning? Anim Behav 81:e1–e6CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Soler M (2014) Long-term coevolution between avian brood parasites and their hosts. Biol Rev doi 10:1111Google Scholar
  25. Takasu F (1998) Why do all host species not show defense against avian brood parasitism: evolutionary lag or equilibrium? Am Nat 151:193–205CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  26. Underwood TJ, Sealy SG (2006) Influence of shape on egg discrimination in American robins and gray catbirds. Ethology 112:164–173CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Yang C, Liang W, Cai Y, Shi SH, Takasu F, Møller AP, Antonov A, Fossøy F, Moksnes A, Røskaft E, Stokke BG (2010) Coevolution in action: Disruptive selectin on egg colour in an avian brood parasite and its host. PLoS One 5:e10816PubMedCentralCrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  28. Yang C, Wang L, Cheng S-J, Hsu Y-C, Liang W, Møller AP (2014) Nest defenses and egg recognition of yellow-bellied prinia against cuckoo parasitism. Naturwissenschaften 101:727–734CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  29. Yang C, Wang L, Liang W, Møller AP (2015) Nest sanitation behavior as a pre-adaptation of egg rejection to counter parasitism in hirundines. Anim Cogn 18:355–360CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Canchao Yang
    • 1
  • Min Chen
    • 1
  • Longwu Wang
    • 2
  • Wei Liang
    • 1
  • Anders Pape Møller
    • 3
  1. 1.Ministry of Education Key Laboratory for Tropical Plant and Animal Ecology, College of Life SciencesHainan Normal UniversityHaikou 571158China
  2. 2.College of Life SciencesWuhan UniversityWuhan 430072China
  3. 3.Laboratoire d’Ecologie, Systématique et Evolution, CNRS UMR 8079Université Paris-SudOrsay CedexFrance

Personalised recommendations