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Abstract

Many hosts of avian brood parasites such as the common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) show refined egg discrimination behaviour. Egg recognition in most open-nesting hosts seems to be based entirely on differences in colour. However, hole- and dome-nesting hosts may rely largely on luminance contrasts. Here, we studied egg rejection behaviour in nightingales (Luscinia megarhynchos), an open-nesting species that nests in deeply shadowed positions and lays very specific dark olive-green eggs. Although being theoretically suitable as hosts of the cuckoo, nightingales are very rarely parasitized and no cuckoo egg morph mimicking nightingale eggs is known. Thus, we predicted high rejection rate of foreign eggs, but because of the dim nesting environments, luminance contrasts would be an important cue in egg rejection decisions, similar to cavity- or dome-nesting species. We experimentally parasitized nightingale nests with two groups of model egg types: ‘bright eggs’ and ‘dark eggs’. Within each group, one of the egg types was an effective match while the other type was a poor colour match (whitish vs. pale blue and olive-green vs. black).We used a discrimination visual model to quantify host-model egg similarity and compared egg rejection predicted by the model with the observed rejection pattern. Consistent with a scenario of largely luminance-based egg recognition, blue and white eggs, which had larger achromatic mismatching, were rejected at a higher relative rate than the better achromatic matching black and green eggs. Nightingales showed strong aggression to a cuckoo dummy, suggesting that they were involved in coevolutionary interactions with the cuckoo in the past. However, because of the highly distinct appearance of nightingale eggs relative to the other sympatrically breeding passerines, and the largely luminance-based egg recognition, this arms race was likely terminated at an early stage.