Inferential reasoning and egg rejection in a cooperatively breeding cuckoo

Christina Pauline Riehl, Meghan J. Strong, Scott V. Edwards

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Inferential reasoning—associating a visible consequence with an imagined event—has been demonstrated in several bird species in captivity, but few studies have tested wild birds in ecologically relevant contexts. Here, we investigate inferential reasoning by the greater ani, a cooperatively breeding cuckoo in which several females lay eggs in one nest. Prior to laying her first egg, each female removes any eggs that have already been laid by other females in the shared nest. After laying her first egg, however, each female stops removing eggs, presumably in order to avoid accidentally rejecting her own. But are anis using inferential reasoning to track the fate of their eggs in the communal nest, or is egg ejection governed by non-cognitive determinants? We experimentally removed eggs from two-female nests after both females had laid at least one egg and used video recording to verify that both females viewed the empty nest. We waited until one female (A) laid an egg in the nest, and video recorded the behavior of the female that had not yet re-laid (B). We predicted that if capable of inferential reasoning, female B should infer that the new egg could not be her own and she should remove it. Five out of five females tested failed to make this inference, suggesting that egg removal is either determined by the female’s reproductive status or by the amount of time elapsed between egg removal and re-laying. This apparent cognitive constraint may have implications for the evolutionary stability of the anis’ unusual breeding system.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)75-82
Number of pages8
JournalAnimal Cognition
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


  • Ani
  • Cognition
  • Conspecific brood parasitism
  • Egg recognition
  • Egg rejection
  • Inferential reasoning


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