Inferential reasoning—associating a visible consequence with an imagined event—has been demonstrated in several bird species in captivity, but few studies have tested wild birds in ecologically relevant contexts. Here, we investigate inferential reasoning by the greater ani, a cooperatively breeding cuckoo in which several females lay eggs in one nest. Prior to laying her first egg, each female removes any eggs that have already been laid by other females in the shared nest. After laying her first egg, however, each female stops removing eggs, presumably in order to avoid accidentally rejecting her own. But are anis using inferential reasoning to track the fate of their eggs in the communal nest, or is egg ejection governed by non-cognitive determinants? We experimentally removed eggs from two-female nests after both females had laid at least one egg and used video recording to verify that both females viewed the empty nest. We waited until one female (A) laid an egg in the nest, and video recorded the behavior of the female that had not yet re-laid (B). We predicted that if capable of inferential reasoning, female B should infer that the new egg could not be her own and she should remove it. Five out of five females tested failed to make this inference, suggesting that egg removal is either determined by the female’s reproductive status or by the amount of time elapsed between egg removal and re-laying. This apparent cognitive constraint may have implications for the evolutionary stability of the anis’ unusual breeding system.
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We thank Tom Beckers, M. Andres Blanco, Egbert G. Leigh, Jr., and an anonymous reviewer for their useful comments on the manuscript. Oris Acevedo, Belkys Jimenez, and Alison Pirie provided logistical support for field work, and William T. Wcislo provided advice on the use of video cameras. This study was supported by grants awarded to C.R. from the Putnam Expedition Fund from the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University and from the Milton Fund from Harvard University. We are grateful to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute for their continued support of this study population and field site.
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