Nest Camouflage in Nightjars & Other Birds

Introduction

Fiery-necked Nightjar

A Fiery-necked Nightjar brooding two chicks among leaf litter in Zambia.

Nesting nightjars (and other ground-nesting birds such as plovers and coursers) are a particularly neat system for studying the evolution of camouflage in the wild: they don’t build any kind of nest structure but just lay their eggs directly on the natural background, which means they depend completely on the appearance of their eggs or their own bodies for concealment. It’s also important that nests by definition are in a fixed location – so you know the bird has chosen that spot rather than happening to have landed there after being disturbed. At our study site in Zambia we have several species of nightjar, plover and courser breed out in the open in the baking heat of the late dry season. They need to make sure that their eggs (and themselves) are protected not only from predators but also dangerously high temperatures out in the sun at midday.

Jolyon and Jared

Jolyon Troscianko and Jared Wilson-Aggarwal in the field in Zambia, photographing an incubating Fiery-necked Nightjar using a UV-sensitive camera.

We’ve been studying nightjars, coursers and plovers in the field in Zambia since 2011. These birds are currently the focus of Dr Nick Horrocks‘s work on thermal ecology. They were previously the focus of a BBSRC-funded research project in collaboration with the Sensory Ecology Group Exeter University, co-led by Exeter’s Dr Martin Stevens and carried out by Dr Jolyon Troscianko and Jared Wilson-Aggarwal. Please read more about our work on the ProjectNightjar website, help us with our research by posing as a predator in an online computer game and exerting some natural selection on ever-evolving populations of virtual eggs, have a look at the photo galleries below of real nightjars and coursers in the field, and join nearly half a million others in watching this very short video that our funders, the BBSRC, made using our film footage from Zambia:

Publications

  • Stevens, M., Troscianko, J., Wilson-Aggarwal, J.K. & Spottiswoode, C.N. 2017 Improvement of individual camouflage through background choice in ground-nesting birds. Nature Ecology & Evolution 1: 1325-1333. Read on journal website [Open Access]
  • Troscianko, J. Wilson-Aggarwal, J., Griffiths, D., Spottiswoode, C.N. & Stevens, M. (2017) Relative advantages of dichromatic and trichromatic color vision in camouflage breaking. Behavioral Ecology 28: 556-564. Read on journal website [Open Access]
  • Troscianko, J., Wilson-Aggarwal, J., Spottiswoode, C.N. & Stevens, M. (2016) Nest covering in plovers: how modifying the visual environment influences egg camouflage. Ecology and Evolution doi: 10.1002/ece3.2494 Read on journal website [Open Access]
  • Wilson-Aggarwal, J., Troscianko, J., Stevens, M. & Spottiswoode, C.N. (2016) Escape distance in ground-nesting birds differs with level of individual camouflage. American Naturalist 188: 231–239. Read on journal website [Open Access]
  • Troscianko, J., Wilson-Aggarwal, J., Stevens, M. & Spottiswoode, C.N. (2016) Camouflage directly predicts the survival probability of ground-nesting birds. Scientific Reports 6: 19966. Read on journal website [Open Access]

Nightjar Photo Gallery

Coursers Photo Gallery

News

Outreach for British Science Week at local Cambridgeshire school

During this year’s British Science Week, we’ve been engaging with local school children in Cambridgeshire. Mairenn Attwood led interactive talks at the Thomas Clarkson Academy in Wisbech,  a school partnered with ‘Teach First’ (a charity aimed at reducing educational inequality).

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New scientific paper on the “Limits to host colonization and speciation” published

Our paper “Limits to host colonization and speciation in a radiation of parasitic finches” has just been published in the journal Behavioral Ecology. In this study, led by Dr Gabriel Jamie, we explored the factors which limited the colonisation of new hosts by brood-parasitic Vidua finches. Speciation in these birds is closely connected with the colonisation of new hosts. Therefore, if we can understand what limits this process, we can understand what has limited the diversification of this radiation.

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Parasitic finches featured in new documentary “Attenborough’s Life in Colour” on BBC One

The amazing mimicry shown by nestling Pin-tailed Whydahs of their Common Waxbill hosts is showcased in David Attenborough’s Life in Colour the latest natural history documentary on BBC One. Filming of this sequence by Nick Green and Max Hug Williams of Humble Bee Films took place at our field site in Choma, Zambia, with Dr Gabriel Jamie acting as scientific consultant and contributing sound recordings.

You can watch the sequence in Episode 2: “Hiding in Colour” on BBC iPlayer.

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