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Nest sanitation as an effective defence against brood parasitism

Abstract

Egg rejection is a crucial defence strategy against brood parasitism that requires the host to correctly recognise the foreign egg. Rejection behaviour has, thus, evolved in many hosts, facilitated by the visual differences between the parasitic and host eggs, and driving hosts to rely on colour and pattern cues. On the other hand, the need to recognise non-egg-shaped objects to carry out nest sanitation led birds to evolve the ability to discriminate and eject objects using mainly shape cues. However, little is known regarding the evolutionary significance of rejection behaviour in general and the cognitive processes underlying it. Here, we investigated the response of the barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) during pre-laying and laying stages to four objects types that differed in shape (eggs vs stars) and colour/pattern (mimetic vs non-mimetic) to investigate (1) what cognitive mechanisms are involved in object discrimination and (2) whether egg rejection is a direct defence against brood parasitism, or simply a product of nest sanitation. We found that swallows ejected stars more often than eggs in both stages, indicating that swallows possess a template for the shape of their eggs. Since the effect of colour/pattern on ejection decisions was minor, we suggest that barn swallows have not evolved a direct defence against brood parasitism but instead, egg ejection might be a product of their well-developed nest sanitation behaviour. Nonetheless, the fact that mimetic eggs were ejected especially in the pre-laying stage shows that nest sanitation could be an effective defence against poorly timed brood parasitism.

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Data availability

All data for these analyses can be found in the Supplementary information.

Code availability

The code employed in these analyses can be found in the Supplementary information.

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Acknowledgements

We thank K. Bendová, M. Frýbová, K. Míčková, G. Štětková, J. Záleská, L. Zemanová, M. Janča, L. Pazdera for their help with fieldwork. We also thank M. Frýbová for her help with making experimental objects, M. Honza for lending us camera sets and D. Hanley for lending us the equipment measuring light availability at the nests. We are very grateful to the managers of the cattle farms that kindly permitted us to conduct fieldwork on their grounds. Lastly, many thanks to the two reviewers who greatly helped to improve our manuscript.

Funding

This work was financially supported by the Czech Science Foundation (grant projects 20-06110Y, 21-22160S and 19-22538S).

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MŠ, AEH, TA and VJ conceived the ideas and designed methodology; MŠ, VJ, LM, OT and TA collected data; MŠ and LM analysed video recordings; AEH performed statistical analyses, JT designed experimental objects and MŠ led the writing of the manuscript. All authors contributed to the drafts and gave final approval for publication.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Michal Šulc.

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Authors declare no conflict of interests.

Ethical approval

We declare that all experiments performed for this study were approved by the animal and ethics representatives of The Czech Academy of Sciences and nature conservation authorities (62065/2017-MZE-17214 and MZP/2020/630/964). The fieldwork adhered to the Czech Law on the Protection of Animals against Mistreatment (licence no. CZ03971 and CZ04122).

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Supplementary Information

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Supplementary file1 Supplementary material 1: Code used for statistical analyses in R software (TXT 6 KB)

Supplementary file2 Supplementary material 2: Four cases of object ejections by swallow females (MP4 29778 KB)

Supplementary file3 Supplementary material 3: Three cases of swallow females pecking experimental objects without ejecting them (MP4 88752 KB)

Supplementary file4 Supplementary material 4: Raw data used in the study (CSV 9 KB)

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Šulc, M., Hughes, A.E., Mari, L. et al. Nest sanitation as an effective defence against brood parasitism. Anim Cogn 25, 991–1002 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-022-01646-0

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-022-01646-0

Keywords

  • Mimicry
  • Nest cleaning
  • Visual cues
  • Sensory ecology
  • Template image
  • Illumination