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Egg covering in cavity nesting birds may prevent nest usurpation by other species

  • Slagsvold, Tore1
  • Wiebe, Karen L.2
  • 1 University of Oslo, Oslo, N-0316, Norway , Oslo (Norway)
  • 2 University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Canada , Saskatoon (Canada)
Published Article
Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Springer Berlin Heidelberg
Publication Date
Jul 31, 2021
DOI: 10.1007/s00265-021-03045-w
Springer Nature
  • Original Article


AbstractSome birds cover their eggs with nest material when they leave to forage. It has been suggested that such egg-covering aids thermoregulation or prevents predation but here we present a new hypothesis, that secondary cavity-nesting species cover their eggs to prevent nest usurpation by other birds. When the bottom of the cavity is dark, as when eggs are covered by nest material, it may be difficult for a prospecting competitor to see whether a defending nest owner or a predator is hiding inside the cavity. Competitors may therefore hesitate to enter dark cavities. We filmed 21 great tit (Parus major) nests during the egg-laying period and found that the female spent bouts of highly variable length outside the nest box (range 0.3–250 min, n = 51), so prospecting small passerines would have difficulty predicting whether an aggressive tit owner was in the box or would soon return. We presented prospecting male pied flycatchers (Ficedula hypoleuca) with a dyad of boxes (n = 93), each containing a great tit nest but only one with visible eggs. Flycatchers hesitated more to enter a nest box with no visible tit eggs than a box with exposed eggs. This was most evident for nest boxes with dark versus light interior paint, supporting the idea that better interior illumination makes prospecting birds more confident about entering an unfamiliar cavity. The usurpation and predation hypotheses are not mutually exclusive because both competitors and small predators may hesitate to enter dark, enclosed spaces if visibility is low.Significance statementSome birds deposit a layer of material on top of the eggs when they leave the nest. Several hypotheses have been proposed for such egg covering, for example that it may insulate the eggs and reduce the risk of nest predation. We propose a new hypothesis, namely that secondary hole-nesting birds cover their eggs when they leave the nest to prevent usurpation of the cavity by other birds. Great tits that we filmed at the nest during the egg-laying period could be absent for long periods. To test the hypothesis, we presented male pied flycatchers, potential nest competitors, with a dyad of nest boxes, each containing a great tit nest but only one with visible tit eggs. In support of the prediction, prospecting flycatchers hesitated to enter dark cavities with dark floors relative to boxes with exposed, reflective eggs.

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