Zebra finches use camouflage

zebra finch pair in a nest

Male zebra finches are the nest builders in this species. A new study suggests that they camouflage their nests to blend in with the background.

William Warby/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Bird’s nests come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, and they’re built out of all sorts of things. Hummingbirds, for instance, create tiny cups just a couple centimeters wide; sociable weavers in Africa, in contrast, work together to build huge nests more than two meters across that are so heavy they can collapse trees. There are nests built on rocky ledges, in mounds on the ground, high in trees and on the edges of buildings. Bowerbirds even construct their nests as tiny houses decorated with an artistic eye to attract the ladies.

So perhaps it’s not all that surprising the no one had ever investigated whether birds camouflage their nests to protect their eggs against potential predators. It would make sense that they do, but if you were to test it, where would you start?

For Ida Bailey of the University of St. Andrews in Fife, Scotland, and colleagues, the answer was zebra finches. Male finches usually build nests in dense shrubs and layer the outside of the nests with dry grass stems and fine twigs. Predators, usually birds, take a heavy toll on the zebra finches, though. Since birds tend to hunt based on sight rather than smell, camouflaging a nest might work to protect the eggs sequestered inside. And even better, because zebra finches have good color vision, building a camouflaged nest might be possible.

So Bailey’s team gathered 21 pairs of zebra finches, some of which were already housed at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, while others were bought from a local pet store. The researchers set each pair up in its own cage. Two walls of the cage were lined with colored paper, and a nest cup was placed in that half of the cage. Then the birds were given two cups containing colored paper — one color that matched the walls and a second contrasting color. The results of the study appear October 1 in The Auk.

The birds tended to build their nests out of the color that matched the walls of their cage. But they also usually used some of the second color. They may have been employing a technique called disruptive coloration, the researchers say. The second color may help the birds make the nest look less like a nest, and thus less like something a predator should check out.

Because the birds in the study were captive, they had never encountered predators. Their parents, grandparents and others many generations back would also have not had any dealings with predators. So it’s interesting to find that these birds still bothered to employ the camouflage technique. Perhaps wild birds, the researchers note, may have even stronger preferences for camouflage since the threat of predation for them is very real.

Sarah Zielinski is the Editor, Print at Science News Explores. She has a B.A. in biology from Cornell University and an M.A. in journalism from New York University. She writes about ecology, plants and animals.

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