Wait Until Dark? Daily Activity Patterns and Nest Predation by Snakes

Brett A. DeGregorio, Jinelle H. Sperry, Michael P. Ward, Patrick J. Weatherhead

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Predation involves costs and benefits, so predators should employ tactics that reduce their risk of injury or death and that increase their success at capturing prey. One potential way that predators could decrease risk and increase benefits is by attacking prey at night when risks may be reduced and prey more vulnerable. Because some snakes are facultatively nocturnal and prey on bird nests during the day and night, they are ideal for assessing the costs and benefits of diurnal vs. nocturnal predation. We used automated radiotelemetry and cameras to investigate predation on nesting birds by two species of snakes, one diurnal and the other facultatively nocturnal. We predicted that snakes preying on nests at night should experience less parental nest defence and capture more adults and nestlings. Rat snakes (Pantherophis obsoletus) were relatively inactive at night (23-36% activity) but nearly always preyed on nests after dark (80% of nest predations). Conversely, racers (Coluber constrictor) were exclusively diurnal and preyed on nests during the times of day they were most active. These results are consistent with rat snakes strategically using their capacity for facultative nocturnal activity to prey on nests at night. The likely benefit is reduced nest defence because birds defended their nests less vigourously at night. Consistent with nocturnal predation being safer, rat snake predation events lasted three times longer at night than during the day (26 vs. 8 min). Nocturnal nest predation did not make nests more profitable by increasing the likelihood of capturing adults or removing premature fledging of nestlings. The disconnect between rat snake activity and timing of nest predation seems most consistent with rat snakes locating prey during the day using visual cues but waiting until dark to prey on nests when predation is safer, although designing a direct test of this hypothesis will be challenging.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1225-1234
Number of pages10
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 1 2015


  • Automated radiotelemetry
  • Facultative nocturnal
  • Foraging
  • Nest cameras
  • Nocturnal activity
  • Predatory tactics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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