New publication: Nest decoration: birds exploit a fear of feathers to guard their nest from usurpation

By Tore Slagsvold and Karen L. Wiebe in Royal Society Open Science


Many species of birds incorporate feathers into their nest as structural support and to insulate the eggs or offspring. Here, we investigated the novel idea that birds reduce the risk of nest usurpation by decorating it with feathers to trigger a fear response in their rivals. We let prospecting birds choose between a dyad of nest-boxes in the wild, both containing some nest materials, but where one had a few white feathers and the other had none. All three species of cavity-nesting birds studied, the pied flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca, the blue tit Cyanistes caeruleus, and the tree swallow Tachycineta bicolor, hesitated to enter boxes with white feathers. A similar avoidance of white feathers was found when the alternative nest-box of a dyad held black feathers. However, the birds readily collected white feathers that we placed in front of their nest-box, showing the fear of such feathers was context-dependent. We suggest that naive prospecting birds may perceive feathers in nests as the result of a predation event, and that owners decorate nests with bright feathers that can be seen from the opening to deter others from entering.

Publication details

Royal Society Open Science
Published:17 November 2021
DOI: 10.1098/rsos.211579
Publication webpage.


Tore Slagsvold

Centre for Ecological and Evolutionary Synthesis (CEES), Department of Biosciences, University of Oslo, Oslo 0316, Norway.
Homepage at UiO.

Karen L. Wiebe

Department of Biology, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Canada.
Homepage at University of Saskatchewan.


Published Nov. 19, 2021 9:18 AM - Last modified Nov. 19, 2021 9:18 AM