Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Egg Colors and Shapes

The Chicago Peregrine Program inspired me to write a quick blog on the colors and shapes of eggs. Bald eagles have white eggs, peregrine falcons have eggs that range from light cream through brick red, and red-tailed hawks have pale eggs that are lightly splotched with brown. How and why do the birds we watch lay differently-colored eggs?

In general, female birds inherit egg colors and patterns from their female parents, who are ZW heterogametes. Egg-shell is made primarily of calcium carbonate, a white material, so the default color of all eggs could be considered white. As an egg moves down a female bird's oviduct, it squeezes or presses against glands that produce colored pigments from the breakdown of hemoglobin. Some colors (blues and greens) are applied very early on in the shell forming process, while others (brown) are applied quite late. Color may be applied relatively evenly or in drips and drabs depending on the bird and the speed of the egg through the female's oviduct. If the egg is stationary or moving very slowly, it may be solid, blotched, or spotted. If it is in motion, it will be streaked.

Coloring eggs carries a metabolic cost, so why aren't all bird eggs white? It's believed that birds with white or nearly white eggs have nesting strategies that hide their eggs from predators without the use of color. They might nest in cavities like barn owls, cover their eggs in vegetation like geese, or begin incubation immediately, like bald eagles. Since the eggs aren't visible to predators, camouflage colors and/or cryptic markings don't provide a survival advantage. Birds that lay colored eggs tend to nest in places or ways that are more visible to predators. Peregrine falcons, for example, don't usually begin full incubation until after their third egg is laid. The red color and light speckling helps conceal peregrine eggs when Mom and Dad aren't sitting on them and could make the eggs harder for nest invaders like raccoon to find. Ten or 20 seconds might buy enough time for enraged parents to drive nest intruders away.

So why do red-tailed hawks lay lightly speckled eggs while eagles lay white, highly visible eggs? Both birds begin full incubation right away and nest in fairly similar ways. We don't know for sure, although eagles in general are highly visible (giant nests, flashy black and white colors, six-foot wing spans) while hawks tend to be more concerned with concealment. The differences in egg-coloration might reflect some aspect of their lives we don't understand, but either way, egg-coloration is driven by survival. Hawks must need to conceal their eggs where eagles do not.

Predators aren't the only problem birds face. Some birds commonly lay or dump eggs in the nests of other birds. Splotched, spotted, or streaked eggs may help individual birds recognize their own particular markings and reject eggs that don’t match. So why don't Canada geese, which egg-dump, lay patterned or marked eggs? In general, I suspect that dumped eggs don't impact the survivability of original eggs very much in Canada geese. They are precoccial, so young require less parental investment once the eggs hatch. Canada geese also time hatching quite tightly, so an egg dumped at the wrong time won't survive.

How about egg shape? Peregrine falcons, Bald eagles, and Red-tailed hawks lay differently colored eggs, but the eggs of all three species are elliptical or oval in shape. Elliptical eggs nestle nicely in a scrape or nest cup where they sit side by side or in a line. However, the eggs of cavity-nesting birds like the Barn owls at Eaglecrest may be almost spherical. These eggs tend to cluster at the bottom of the tree hole. Their shape makes stacking a little easier, which helps the female incubate all of them. We tend to think of eggs as neat ovals, but some birds, like the killdeer at Eaglecrest, lay pyriform eggs. These oddly-shaped eggs are tapered, which causes them to roll in a tight circle. In the case of ledge-nesting birds, pyriform eggs are less likely to roll off, while killdeer eggs tend to stay in the nest scrape instead of rolling across gravel or stones where they could break.

In general, egg color and shape is influenced by survival. Female birds that produce more young will out-compete female birds that don't. Egg-color and shape may be influenced by overall health (healthier birds tend to lay more vibrant eggs), metabolic cost, the need to hide from predators, the need to identify one's own eggs, and the incubation advantage shape confers in any given circumstance. In all cases, our parents have demonstrated egg-ceptional egg-care. We look forward to hatching soon!

Things that helped me learn and write about this topic:


Sandy Keachie said...

Would you kndly post legend so as to identify the eggs? Thank you

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for posting this... I learned so much, and found your writing style easy to understand. It's amazing how every little detail has a purpose.

G Kohr said...

Thank you so much for posting this... I learned so much, and found your writing style easy to understand. It's amazing how every little detail has a purpose.