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Biol Lett. 2010 August 23; 6(4): 453–457.
Published online 2010 February 17. doi:  10.1098/rsbl.2009.1044
PMCID: PMC2936209

Can eggs in a cavity be a female secondary sexual signal? Male nest visits and modelling of egg visual discrimination in blue tits


Eggshell colouration is thought to function as a female-specific secondary sexual trait. While tests of this idea are rapidly accumulating in cavity-nesting birds, some fundamental underlying assumptions remain rarely investigated: namely, can males see eggshell coloration and perceive colour differences between the eggs of different females? We tested these two key assumptions in a natural population of blue tits (Cyanistes caeruleus). Using transponders, we tracked male nest visits and found that all males visited their nest-boxes while eggs were present and often visually accessible. Interestingly, some males also visited neighbouring nests. We then tested whether birds could detect eggshell coloration using models of avian colour vision; models were performed with and without limitations on visual performance owing to dim light. Both models found that differences in eggshell brightness were often easier to discriminate than differences in colour; there was more contrast in white eggshell background between clutches than within and its contrast against nest background was repeatable within clutches, suggesting these features could act as signals. Yet, the detectability of these contrasts depended entirely on model assumptions of visual limitations. Consequently, we need a better understanding of underlying visual mechanisms in dim-light environments and behavioural discrimination experiments before confirming the signalling potential of eggshell coloration.

Keywords: eggshell coloration, sexual signal, nest visit, visual perception, Cyanistes caeruleus

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