Safety first

terrestrial predators drive selection of highly specific nesting sites in colonial-breeding birds

Daniel J. D. Natusch, Jessica A. Lyons, Richard Shine

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

5 Citations (Scopus)


Nesting is a critical yet hazardous life stage for many birds. For colonial-breeding birds, the conspicuousness of the colony to predators suggests immense pressure to select optimal colonial nesting sites. But what drives selection of those sites? As with solitary nesting birds, reducing access by predators may be the single most important factor. If so, knowledge of the predators involved and the attributes of different potential colony sites can allow us to predict the features that make a site especially safe. We examined the attributes of trees used by breeding colonies of metallic starlings Aplonis metallica in tropical Australia, and experimentally tested if those attributes prevented nest access by predatory snakes. Our surveys confirmed that tree choice by starling nesting colonies is highly non-random, with all colonies located in tall trees in rainforest clearings, with no low branches and smooth bark. Experimental tests demonstrated that the climbing ability of predatory snakes depends upon bark rugosity, and that colony access by snakes depends on tree attributes such as bark rugosity and canopy connectivity. Our study confirms that colonial-nesting starlings select colony sites that provide a safe refuge from predation. Intense predation pressure may have driven the evolution of stringent breeding habitat criteria in many other species of colonial-breeding birds.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1104-1113
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Avian Biology
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2017
Externally publishedYes

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