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Keywords:

  • brood parasitism;
  • coevolution;
  • evolution of mimicry;
  • host specificity;
  • reflectance spectrometry

To investigate the evolutionary mechanism (host specificity vs. random searching) maintaining mimicry between cuckoo egg appearance and that of different European cuckoo Cuculus canorus hosts, we studied the level of mimicry between the appearance of C. canorus eggs and that of their hosts’ eggs in different habitats in southern Finland by using ultraviolet-visible reflectance spectrophotometry. In the main habitat used by C. canorus for reproduction, eggs laid in nests of different host species differed in appearance. Host use by C. canorus was not related to the abundance of hosts, and the level of mimicry was not related to host abundance in the habitat. Furthermore, a close match between C. canorus egg appearance and that of host eggs within habitats was detected after removing the potentially confounding effect of host abundance. In the only two suitable host species nesting in trees (namely chaffinch Fringilla coelebs and brambling Fringilla montifringilla) we detected changes in C. canorus egg appearance that paralleled those of the two host species. Thus our findings suggest the existence of a correlation between the appearance of C. canorus eggs and that of their hosts’ eggs within different habitat types, and suggest that mimicry is maintained by strict host preferences by each C. canorus female when laying. © 2004 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2004, 82, 57–68.