Nest construction by a ground-nesting bird represents a potential trade-off between egg crypticity and thermoregulation

Paul M. Mayer, Levica M. Smith, Robert G. Ford, Dustin C. Watterson, Marshall D. McCutchen, Mark R. Ryan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Predation selects against conspicuous colors in bird eggs and nests, while thermoregulatory constraints select for nest-building behavior that regulates incubation temperatures. We present results that suggest a trade-off between nest crypticity and thermoregulation of eggs based on selection of nest materials by piping plovers (Charadrius melodus), a ground-nesting bird that constructs simple, pebble-lined nests highly vulnerable to predators and exposed to temperature extremes. Piping plovers selected pebbles that were whiter and appeared closer in color to eggs than randomly available pebbles, suggesting a crypsis function. However, nests that were more contrasting in color to surrounding substrates were at greater risk of predation, suggesting an alternate strategy driving selection of white rocks. Near-infrared reflectance of nest pebbles was higher than randomly available pebbles, indicating a direct physical mechanism for heat control through pebble selection. Artificial nests constructed of randomly available pebbles heated more quickly and conferred heat to model eggs, causing eggs to heat more rapidly than in nests constructed from piping plover nest pebbles. Thermal models and field data indicated that temperatures inside nests may remain up to 2-6°C cooler than surrounding substrates. Thermal models indicated that nests heat especially rapidly if not incubated, suggesting that nest construction behavior may serve to keep eggs cooler during the unattended laying period. Thus, pebble selection suggests a potential trade-off between maximizing heat reflectance to improve egg microclimate and minimizing conspicuous contrast of nests with the surrounding substrate to conceal eggs from predators. Nest construction behavior that employs light-colored, thermally reflective materials may represent an evolutionary response by birds and other egg-laying organisms to egg predation and heat stress.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)893-901
Number of pages9
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2009
Externally publishedYes


  • Anti-predation
  • Charadrius melodus
  • Egg crypsis
  • Nest construction
  • Thermoregulation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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