Field studies on nesting birds sometimes involve questions related to nest initiation dates, length of the incubation period, or changes in parental incubation behavior during various stages of incubation. Some of this information can be best assessed when a nest is discovered before the eggs have undergone any incubation, and this has traditionally been assessed by floating eggs in freshwater. However, because the freshwater method is not particularly accurate in identifying unincubated eggs, we developed a more reliable saltwater flotation method. The saltwater method involves diluting a saturated saltwater solution with freshwater until a salt concentration is reached where unincubated eggs sink to the bottom and incubated eggs float to the surface. For Laughing Gulls (Leucophaeus atricilla), floating eggs in freshwater failed to identify 39.0% (N = 251) of eggs that were subsequently found by candling to have undergone incubation prior to collection. By contrast, in a separate collection of gull eggs, no eggs that passed the saltwater test (N = 225) were found by a later candling to have been incubated prior to collection. For Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus), floating eggs in freshwater failed to identify 15.6% (N = 250) of eggs that had undergone incubation prior to collection, whereas in a separate collection, none of the eggs that passed the saltwater test (N = 85) were found by a later candling to have been incubated prior to collection. Immersion of eggs in saltwater did not affect embryo survival. Although use of the saltwater method is likely limited to colonial species and requires calibrating a saltwater solution, it is a faster and more accurate method of identifying unincubated eggs than the traditional method of floating eggs in freshwater.
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A saltwater flotation technique to identify unincubated eggs