Natural and artificial scents do not increase egg rejection rates of model brood parasitic eggs by American robins (Turdus migratorius)

Keywords: egg ejection, olfaction, parasitism, recognition systems


Hosts of obligate avian brood parasites can diminish or eliminate the costs of parasitism by rejecting foreign eggs from the nests. A vast literature demonstrates that visual and/or tactile cues can be used to recognize and reject natural or model eggs from the nests of diverse host species. However, data on olfaction-based potential egg recognition cues are both sparse and equivocal: experimentally-applied, naturally-relevant (heterospecific, including parasitic) scents do not appear to increase egg rejection rates in two host species, whereas unnatural scents (human and tobacco scents) do so in one host species. Here I assessed the predictions that (i) human handling of mimetically-painted model eggs would increase rejection rates, and (ii) applying unnatural or natural scents to mimetically or non-mimetically painted model eggs alters these eggs’ respective rejection rates relative to controls. I studied wild American Robins (Turdus migratorius), a robust rejecter species of the eggs of obligate brood parasitic Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater). There was no statistical evidence to support either prediction, whereas poorer color-mimicry was still a predicted cause of greater egg rejection in this data set. Nonetheless, future studies could focus on this and other host species and using these and different methods to apply and maintain the scenting of model eggs to more directly test hosts’ use of potential olfactory cues in the foreign-egg rejection process.