A run-of-the-mill Japanese quail egg looks like it's been splattered with ink. Some quail hens lay beige eggs with just a few tiny speckles. Others have dark hefty blots. But the birds always lay them on the ground where, theoretically, they're vulnerable to predators. To see if quail used the natural landscape to camouflage their eggs, researchers set up a small pen with patches of ground covered in sand of different colors—white, beige, red-brown, and black. After photographing 179 eggs laid by quail (above and in high-resolution), the team used a computer program to detect the outlines of the eggs, then moved the eggs to alternative backgrounds to compare detection. The quail knew which backgrounds camouflaged their eggs best against the eyes of predators, the team reports today in Current Biology, laying the lightly spotted eggs on light backgrounds and the heavily spotted eggs on dark backgrounds. The quail even chose the absolute best of the four options about half the time, showing that these bird brains are capable of some serious strategy.
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