Pattern mimicry of host eggs by the common cuckoo, as seen through a bird's eye

Mary Caswell Stoddard, Martin Stevens

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

195 Scopus citations


Cuckoo-host interactions provide classical examples of coevolution. Cuckoos place hosts under selection to detect and reject foreign eggs, while host defences result in the evolution of host-egg mimicry in cuckoos. Despite a long history of research, egg pattern mimicry has never been objectively quantified, and so its coevolution with host defences has not been properly assessed. Here, we use digital image analysis and modelling of avian vision to quantify the level of pattern mimicry in eight host species of the common cuckoo Cuculus canorus and their respective cuckoo host-races. We measure a range of pattern attributes, including marking size, diversity in size, contrast, coverage and dispersion. This new technique reveals hitherto unnoticed sophistication in egg pattern mimicry. We show that various features of host egg pattern are mimicked by the eggs of their respective cuckoo host-races, and that cuckoos have evolved better pattern mimicry for host species that exhibit stronger egg rejection. Pattern differs relatively more between eggs of different host species than between their respective cuckoo host-races. We suggest that cuckoos may have more 'average' markings in order to be able to use subsidiary hosts. Our study sheds new light on cuckoo-host coevolution and illustrates a new technique for quantifying animal markings with respect to the relevant animal visual system.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1387-1393
Number of pages7
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1686
StatePublished - May 7 2010
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • General Environmental Science
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


  • Bird vision
  • Brood parasitism
  • Cuckoos
  • Digital image analysis
  • Egg rejection
  • Pattern mimicry


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