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Coots can count

SANTA CRUZ, CA -- Coots, the Rodney Dangerfields of the bird world, just might start to get some respect as a result of a new study showing that these common marsh birds are able to recognize and count their own eggs, even in the presence of eggs laid by other birds.

The counting ability of female coots is part of a sophisticated set of defense mechanisms used to thwart other coots who lay eggs in their neighbors' nests, according to Bruce Lyon, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Lyon studied hundreds of coot nests in British Columbia during a four-year investigation. His latest findings appear in the April 3 issue of the scientific journal Nature.

"The ability of females to count only their own eggs in a mixture of eggs is a remarkable feat that provides a convincing, rare example of counting in a wild animal," Lyon wrote in the published paper.

A member of the rail family, the American coot (Fulica americana) is a slate-gray bird with a white beak, about the size of a small duck. It inhabits lakes, ponds, and marshes, often in large numbers. Coots are ungainly on land, reluctant to fly, and not very impressive in the water, either. Use of the word coot to mean a stupid person or simpleton reflects prevailing attitudes toward these rather comical birds. But this perception is belied by Lyon's discovery of their impressive cognitive abilities.

"I was shocked. At first, I didn't believe the results," he said.

Lyon originally set out to study how coot parents care for their chicks. But the focus of his research changed when he discovered extremely high levels of "brood parasitism," the practice of laying eggs in other birds' nests. Most studies of brood parasitism have looked at birds like cuckoos, which lay their eggs in other species' nests and thereby avoid the trouble of raising their own chicks. But brood parasitism also occurs within species, and Lyon'
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Contact: Tim Stephens
stephens@ucsc.edu
831-459-4352
University of California - Santa Cruz
2-Apr-2003


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