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Coots can count

s research on coots is shedding new light on this little-studied phenomenon.

Lyon and his field assistants tracked the fate of every egg in more than 400 coot nests, checking the nests every day. Because no bird can lay more than one egg per day, parasitism was readily detected. In addition, coot eggs laid by different parents can often be distinguished on the basis of color and speckle pattern.

"The egg pattern is like a fingerprint," Lyon said. "It turns out that in most cases, the parasitism is done by females who have their own nests, and often it's the next-door neighbor, so by comparing the eggs in nearby nests we can tell who's doing it."

Parasitism was rampant, affecting 41 percent of the nests and accounting for 13 percent of all the eggs laid in the study population. Furthermore, the cost of parasitism to the hosts was quite high.

"There's not enough food for all the eggs that get laid, so there is a massive die-off of chicks. Typically about half the chicks in a nest starve to death," Lyon said. "That explains both the cost of parasitism to the host and the benefit to the parasite."

Female coots, Lyon found, are quite good at recognizing and rejecting parasitic eggs. Rejected eggs were buried deep in the nesting material and never hatched. In some cases, parasitic eggs were not rejected outright, but were banished to inferior incubation positions, resulting in delayed hatching and decreased likelihood of survival for the parasitic chicks.

"They may use that strategy to deal with eggs they are less certain of," Lyon said. "It's subtle, but it has an effect on reproductive success, because the ones that hatch later are more likely to perish."

Evidence that coots are able to count their eggs was completely unanticipated. Lyon wanted to look at how the presence of parasitic eggs affected clutch size. Coots are indeterminate layers, meaning that they'll keep laying eggs until an external cue tells them
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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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