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Coots can count

they're done. Speculation about the nature of the cue has long favored the sense of touch--when the female feels like she's sitting on the right number of eggs, the development of new egg follicles stops.

(Follicles that have already started developing continue to develop, so there is a delay between the cue and the cessation of egg laying.)

If the birds use a touch cue, the presence of parasitic eggs should cause a female to lay fewer of her own eggs. But Lyon found that when female coots recognized the parasitic eggs in their nests, eventually rejecting them, they did not reduce their clutch size. In contrast, females that failed to recognize parasitic eggs laid one fewer of their own eggs for each parasitic egg they received.

"Rejection takes a long time, so the clutch-size decision is made while the parasitic eggs are still in the nest," Lyon said. "That means they are not using a touch cue. These birds are looking at their nests and counting only those eggs they recognize as their own to make a clutch-size decision."

Lyon noted that the meaning of "counting" in animals is a highly contentious issue among cognitive psychologists and animal behavior experts. What he means by counting is that the birds are making decisions based on the number of eggs in their nests.

"That's pretty amazing for a 'stupid' bird like a coot," Lyon said. "It's very satisfying to rescue a study animal from a bad rap."


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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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