Linking snake behavior to nest predation in a Midwestern bird community

Patrick J. Weatherhead, Gerardo L.F. Carfagno, Jinelle H. Sperry, Jeffrey D. Brawn, Scott K. Robinson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Nest predators can adversely affect the viability of songbird populations, and their impact is exacerbated in fragmented habitats. Despite substantial research on this predator-prey interaction, however, almost all of the focus has been on the birds rather than their nest predators, thereby limiting our understanding of the factors that bring predators and nests into contact. We used radiotelemetry to document the activity of two snake species (rat snakes, Elaphe obsoleta; racers, Coluber constrictor) known to prey on nests in. Midwestern bird communities and simultaneously monitored 300 songbird nests and tested the hypothesis that predation risk should increase for nests when snakes were more active and in edge habitat preferred by both snake species. Predation risk increased when rat snakes were more active, for all nests combined and for two of the six bird species for which we had sufficient nests to allow separate analyses. This result is consistent with rat snakes being more important nest predators than racers. We found no evidence, however, that nests closer to forest edges were at greater risk. These results are generally consistent with the one previous study that investigated rat snakes and nest predation simultaneously. The seemingly paradoxical failure to find higher predation risk in the snakes' preferred habitat (i.e., edge) might be explained by the snakes using edges at least in part for non-foraging activities. We propose that higher nest predation in fragmented habitats (at least that attributable to snakes) results indirectly from edges promoting larger snake populations, rather than from edges directly increasing the risk of nest predation by snakes. If so, the notion of edges per se functioning as ecological "traps" merits further study.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)234-241
Number of pages8
JournalEcological Applications
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2010


  • Coluber constrictor
  • Edge
  • Elaphe obsoleta
  • Field
  • Forest
  • Fragmentation
  • Midwest
  • Nest predation
  • Racer
  • Rat snake
  • Snake behavior
  • Songbirds
  • USA

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology


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