Host species determines egg size in Oriental cuckoo

S. G. Meshcheryagina, A. Mashanova, G. N. Bachurin, I. S. Mitiay, M. G. Golovatin

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The Oriental cuckoo Cuculus optatus is an obligate brood parasite associated with species of the genus Phylloscopus. Four distinct phenotypes of Oriental cuckoo eggs, matching eggshell colour patterns of Arctic warbler Phylloscopus borealis, common chiffchaff (Siberian) P. collybita tristis, yellow-browed warbler P. inornatus and Pallas's leaf warbler P. proregulus, have been identified in the Russian part of its breeding area. We compared egg length, breadth and volume of Oriental cuckoo egg phenotypes with eggs of the corresponding hosts from three geographical regions in Russia: the Urals, Siberia and the Far East. We found significant oometric differences between Oriental cuckoo egg phenotypes. Egg breadth of each cuckoo group matched the egg breadth of the host species, while the length of cuckoo eggs did not match egg length in host species. Our results can be explained in terms of clutch geometry. An egg sticking out above the clutch is likely to be rejected by the host and so breadth should match the host's egg. This constrains cuckoos in maintaining large egg volumes, which are essential for providing a cuckoo chick with the energy required to eject the host eggs and chicks. An increased egg length might compensate for breadth constraints. We suggest that the size of cuckoo eggs might also be affected by parental care - when only one parent is involved in feeding, eggs need to be larger. This might explain why the longest cuckoo eggs belonged to the phenotype parasitizing the smallest host, Pallas's leaf warbler, where only one parent feeds the chicks. In our view, differences in egg sizes of Oriental cuckoo phenotypes provide evidence of their adaptations to brood parasitism on small leaf warbler species.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)147-155
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Zoology
Issue number3
Early online date2 Jul 2018
Publication statusPublished - 2 Nov 2018


  • Cuculus optatus
  • Phylloscopus
  • adaptation
  • brood parasitism
  • cuckoos
  • egg size


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