Snake Skin as Protection Against Predators

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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.

Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor)

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The Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) is located in the eastern regions of the United States, but there are indications that the population is beginning to spread to the northern regions as well. Conservationists can only assume that the growing numbers in these regions is due to humans feeding the birds. The Tufted Titmouse frequents bird feeders and will often chase other birds that try to use this convenient facility. This little Titmouse was originally only found along the Mississippi river basin and the Ohio river basin. Over the years, the sightings have been recorded as they started to spread across the country. The Tufted Titmouse is between 4.5 to 5.5 inches in length and both the males and females are similar in appearance. They have dark to black foreheads, gray heads and white plumage covers the under body parts such as their throats, faces and bellies. The flanks are a rusty color and the upper parts such as back and wings, are a light gray. Bills are short and black, and have dark eyes. The Titmouse will often be seen in small flocks.

Titmice will feed on a large variety of foods that include blackberries, nuts, acorns and sunflower seeds, and insects such as ants, wasps, caterpillars, spiders and snails. Insects will mostly be eaten in the warm summer months, while fruits and nuts will be eaten in the winter months.

Breeding season for the Titmouse is from April to July. The Tufted Titmouse will mate for life and will build their nests in the cavities in trees that are left by Woodpeckers, natural hollows or created by a fungus. Nests are constructed from almost anything they can find. Building materials can include cloth, grass, moss, bark, leaves, hair and feathers. Titmice feel no shame in ripping some fur from a passing squirrel or even plucking a few strands from a human head, to complete their homes. The female will lay five to six eggs that are white in color and are speckled with brown. The incubation period takes approximately fourteen days and both parents will assist in the feeding of the chicks until they are ready to fledge the nest at 16 days.