Eggshell characteristics and yolk composition in the common cuckoo Cuculus canorus: are they adapted to brood parasitism?


  • Rita Hargitai,

  • Csaba Moskát,

  • Miklós Bán,

  • Diego Gil,

  • Isabel López-Rull,

  • Emese Solymos

R. Hargitai (correspondence), Inst. Env. Sci., College of Nyíregyháza, Sóstói út 31/B, H-4401, Nyíregyháza, Hungary. E-mail: – C. Moskát, Anim. Ecol. Res. Group, Hung. Acad. Sci., c/o Hung. Nat. Hist. Mus., Ludovika tér 2, H-1083 Budapest, Hungary. – M. Bán, Behav. Ecol. Res Group, Dept. Evol. Zool., University of Debrecen, Egyetem tér 1, H-4010 Debrecen, Hungary. – D. Gil, Dept. Ecol. Evol., Mus. Nac. Cien. Nat. (CSIC), José Gutiérrez Abascal, 2; 28006 Madrid, Spain. – I. López-Rull, Dept. de Ecol. Evol., Mus. Nacl. de Cien. Naturales (CSIC), José Gutiérrez Abascal, 2; 28006 Madrid, Spain.B – E. Solymos, Joint Res. Train. Lab. Sep. Techn., Eötvös Loránd University, Pázmány P. st. 1/A, H-1117 Budapest, Hungary.


The developmental rate of cuckoo embryos and their hatching size is greater than that of host species, which may require more nutrient resources in the egg and more intensive gas exchange during development. In the present study, we compared various egg characteristics of a brood parasite, the common cuckoo Cuculus canorus, and its frequent host, the great reed warbler Acrocephalus arundinaceus. As maternally-derived testosterone is known to enhance growth rate of embryos and hatchlings, cuckoo eggs are expected to contain higher concentration of testosterone than host eggs. In addition, we expected higher concentration of antioxidants in cuckoo eggs to protect embryos from oxidative stress associated with accelerated growth. Our results showed that cuckoo eggs had thicker shells and higher pore density than great reed warbler eggs. Yolk was significantly heavier in cuckoo eggs and contained higher concentrations of carotenoids and vitamin E, however, yolk androgen and immunoglobulin concentrations were lower in cuckoo eggs as compared to great reed warbler eggs. We also examined whether eggshell colour was associated to egg quality, and detected a positive association between blue-green chroma and yolk antioxidant concentration in both species, suggesting that eggshell colour reflects the antioxidant investment of the female into the eggs. Our results suggest that cuckoo females increase the size, growth rate and competitive ability of their young by providing them with more nutrients and more dietary antioxidants for embryonic development, and not through elevated yolk testosterone or antibody levels. In addition, increased porosity of cuckoo eggshells may allow embryos to develop more rapidly because of a greater capacity of gas exchange.