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How birds spot the cuckoo in the nest
Date:7/15/2008

It's not always easy spotting the cuckoo in the nest. But if you don't, you pay a high price raising someone else's chick. How hosts distinguish impostor eggs from their own has long puzzled scientists. The problem remained largely unsolved while looking at it through our own eyes. It was only when people started thinking from the birds' perspective that they began to understand how hosts recognise a cuckoo egg in the nest. Marcel Honza from the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic explains that birds see UV wavelengths that are well outside our own visual range. Knowing that many bird eggs reflect UV wavelengths, Honza wondered whether altering the reflected UV spectrum of an egg would affect a bird's ability to recognise it as foreign and reject it. Would a blackcap recognise and evict an impostor egg if the reflected UV spectrum were different from the wavelengths reflected by the bird's own clutch? Teaming up with Lenka Polačikov, Honza headed into a near-by forest to test blackcap responses to impostor eggs and publish their findings on July 18th in The Journal of Experimental Biology at http://jeb.biologists.org.

But instead of testing the birds' reactions to real cuckoo eggs, the team found abandoned blackcap eggs, introducing them as impostors to successful blackcap clutches. Having identified nests with well-established clutches, the team coated some impostor eggs in UV blocker, to alter their UV appearance, and others in Vaseline, which didn't alter the egg's UV reflectivity, before planting the impostors in their new nest. Then the team kept their fingers crossed, hoping that the nests weren't washed out by a heavy downpour or raided by a hungry predator, as they waited 5 days to see if the parents rejected the interlopers.

Of the 16 eggs coated in Vaseline, 11 of the impostors were accepted by the nesting parents, while five were rejected; most of the interloper blackcap eggs were visu
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Contact: Kathryn Phillips
kathryn@biologists.com
44-122-342-5525
The Company of Biologists
Source:Eurekalert

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