Snake Skin as Protection Against Predators

February 17, 2015 by  
Filed under Features

Birds use all sorts of materials to build and pad their nests with, and are very good in general at adapting whatever is at hand to suit their needs. Some birds even use the shed skins of snakes in their nest building, raising the question as to whether the snake skin is merely a handy and comfortable material to line a nest with, or whether it is actually intended to scare predators off. A study carried out by Arkansas State University ornithologists concluded that some bird species clearly use the snake skin to deter predators by incorporating it into their nests in some way, or by prominently displaying a snake skin near the nest, or both.

The Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) and Blue Grosbeak (Passerina caerulea) are among the bird species that include pieces of snake skin in their nests, while Great Crested Flycatchers (Myiarchus crinitus) are known to display a snake skin outside their nesting cavity, as well as using an entire coiled snake skin in the nest. These will remain there throughout the incubation and fledgling stage of breeding. The study noted that the main predators of the eggs of Great Crested Flycatchers are rat snakes and flying squirrels – the latter being fond of bird’s eggs and the former preying on both birds and their eggs, as well as on flying squirrels. It was also noted that flying squirrels and Great Crested Flycatchers have a very similar geographical spread, and as all three species favor cavities as habitats, it is likely they will encounter one another. As the flying squirrel does its best to avoid the rat snake, it has been suggested that the shed skin of the snake acts as a deterrent to the squirrel.

A test carried out by the researchers confirmed that to be so. Using 60 nest boxes in which quail eggs were placed, researchers added snake skins into 40 of the boxes, with 20 boxes having no snake skin in them. All of the 40 boxes with snake skins were left untouched, while up to 20 percent of the nests without snake skins were raided by flying squirrels – evidence that some birds use snake skins specifically to ward off predators, and it appears to work.

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