US Geological Survey


Date of this Version



Surveillance of Nesting Birds, Studies In Avian Biology, No.43 pp. 149-60.


Predation is the primary source of nest mortality for most passerines; thus, behaviors to reduce the impacts of predation are frequently quantified to study learning, adaptation, and coevolution among predator and prey species. Video surveillance of nests has made it possible to examine real-time parental nest defense. During 1999-2009, we used video camera systems to monitor 518 nests of grassland birds. We reviewed video of 48 visits by snakes to 34 nests; 37 of these visits resulted in predation of active nests. When adult birds encountered snakes at the nest (n = 33 visits), 76% of the encounters resulted in a form of nest defense (nonaggressive or aggressive); in 47% of the encounters, birds physically struck snakes. When defending nests, most birds pecked at the snakes; Eastern Meadowlarks (Sturnella magna) and Bobolinks (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) pecked most frequently in anyone encounter. Also, two Eastern Meadowlarks ran around snakes, frequently with wings spread, and three Bobolinks struck at snakes from the air. Nest defense rarely appeared to alter snake behavior; the contents of seven nests defended aggressively and two nests defended nonaggressively were partially depredated, whereas the contents of six nests defended each way were consumed completely. One fledgling was produced at each of three nests that had been aggressively defended. During aggressive defense, one snake appeared to be driven away and one was wounded. Our findings should be a useful starting point for further research. For example, future researchers may be able to determine whether the behavioral variation we observed in nest defense reflects species differences, anatomic or phylogenetic constraints, or individual differences related to a bird's prior experience. There appears to be much potential for studying nest defense behavior using video recording of both real and simulated encounters.