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Recognizing odd smells and ejection of brood parasitic eggs. An experimental test in magpies of a novel defensive trait against brood parasitism

Soler, J. J., Pérez‐Contreras, T., De Neve, L., Macías‐Sánchez, E., Møller, A. P., Soler, M.
Journal of evolutionary biology 2014 v.27 no.6 pp. 1265-1270
Cuculidae, Pica pica, brood parasitism, cotton, defensive behavior, eggs, hosts, humans, models, nests, odors, parasites, smell, smoke, tobacco
One of the most important defensive host traits against brood parasitism is the detection and ejection of parasitic eggs from their nests. Here, we explore the possible role of olfaction in this defensive behaviour. We performed egg‐recognition tests in magpie Pica pica nests with model eggs resembling those of parasitic great spotted cuckoos Clamator glandarius. In one of the experiment, experimental model eggs were exposed to strong or moderate smell of tobacco smoke, whereas those of a third group (control) were cleaned with disinfecting wipes and kept in boxes containing odourless cotton. Results showed that model eggs with strong tobacco scent were more frequently ejected compared with control ones. In another experiment, models were smeared with scents from cloacal wash from magpies (control), cloacal wash or uropygial secretions from cuckoos, or human scents. This experiment resulted in a statistically significant effect of treatment in unparasitized magpie nests in which control model eggs handled by humans were more often rejected. These results provide the first evidence that hosts of brood parasites use their olfactory ability to detect and eject foreign eggs from their nests. These findings may have important consequences for handling procedures of experimental eggs used in egg‐recognition tests, in addition to our understanding of interactions between brood parasites and their hosts.