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Abstract

Most theoretical models of coevolution between brood parasites, whether interspecific or conspecific, and their hosts explicitly assume consistent individual behaviour in host egg-rejection responses. Accordingly, hosts cast as acceptors always accept, whereas ejectors always reject parasitic eggs when exposed to stable ecological conditions. To date, only few studies have attempted to test this critical assumption of individual repeatability in egg-rejection responses of hosts. Here, we studied the repeatability of egg rejection in blackbirds (Turdus merula) and song thrush (T. philomelos), species in which females are reported to reject simulated, non-mimetic foreign eggs at intermediate frequencies at the population level. However, intermediate rates of acceptance and rejection can be consistent with either or both intra- and interindividual variability in rejection behaviours. Our experiments revealed generally high individual consistency in these hosts’ responses to experimentally introduced non-mimetic and mimetic model foreign eggs. Individuals also responded faster on average to second than to first trials within the same breeding attempts, but the difference was statistically significant only in blackbirds. These results are consistent with the critical assumption of co-evolutionary models, that statistically egg rejection is mostly individually repeatable, but also reveal that some individuals in both species change their responses even within the short time-window of one breeding attempt. The data suggest that individuals reject foreign eggs faster when perceived parasitism risk is greater because of repeated introductions of experimental parasitic eggs. We provide methodological recommendations to facilitate experimental and meta-analytical studies of individual egg rejection repeatability and discuss how to reduce technical constraints arising from disparate treatments and variable sample sizes for future studies.