Nest predation increases with parental activity: separating nest site and parental activity effects

Thomas E. Martin, Jason Scott, Chris Menge


Alexander Skutch hypothesized that increased parental activity can increase the risk of nest predation. We tested this hypothesis using ten open-nesting bird species in Arizona, USA. Parental activity was greater during the nestling than incubation stage because parents visited the nest frequently to feed their young during the nestling stage. However, nest predation did not generally increase with parental activity between nesting stages across the ten study species. Previous investigators have found similar results. We tested whether nest site effects might yield higher predation during incubation because the most obvious sites are depredated most rapidly. We conducted experiments using nest sites from the previous year to remove parental activity. Our results showed that nest sites have highly repeatable effects on nest predation risk; poor nest sites incurred rapid predation and caused predation rates to be greater during the incubation than nestling stage. This pattern also was exhibited in a bird species with similar (i.e. controlled) parental activity between nesting stages. Once nest site effects are taken into account, nest predation shows a strong proximate increase with parental activity during the nestling stage within and across species. Parental activity and nest sites exert antagonistic influences on current estimates of nest predation between nesting stages and both must be considered in order to understand current patterns of nest predation, which is an important source of natural selection.