A predator caught in the act

We were searching for junco nests when I heard the unmistakable tic-tic-tic of junco alarm chipping. We followed the sound a ways and found a pair of juncos perched on a low branch, alarm chipping for all they were worth. Strange of the juncos to be alarm chipping at us when we were so far away, before, I thought. I wouldn’t have thought they’d see us as a threat from that far away. Odd birds. Directly below the branch with the agitated juncos was a small shrub. “The nest will be in there,” I predicted, showing off for my new field assistants.

2015_snake_nest2I parted the prickly branches, and tiny pink beaks gaped hungrily at me. “There they are,” I said, pleased with myself. “Three chicks.”

2015_snake_nest

And just as I said that, I saw the snake.

For a split second my only thought was, Ooh, and a snake, cool! Then my brain caught up. I snatched up the snake just in time to see two small chick feet disappear down its throat. Four junco chicks, it was, not three: three in the nest, and one in the snake.

2015_snake1The junco parents had not been alarm chipping at us: they had been alarm chipping at the garter snake that was eating their babies.

In the spirit of nondisruptive observation, I should have left the snake where he was. But I’m partial. I walked the snake a good distance away until I thought he would not be able to find his way back to the nest, and let him go.

Poor guy thought he was in for a four-course meal, and all he got was the appetizer.

Poor guy thought he was in for a four-course meal, and all he got was the appetizer.

I see nests lost to predators all the time. This, however, was the first time I had walked in on the event itself. I was struck by the obliviousness of the surviving chicks, who begged me for food while a snake swallowed their sibling and prepared to swallow them too: such young chicks simply don’t have a large repertoire of actions, I think, and respond to events either by begging or sleeping. I was impressed by how close the parent juncos stayed to the nest, since the snake would have been a danger to them too. I was a bit surprised to see that the alarm chipping was no more effective as a defense than you might guess: I had wondered if perhaps the birds had some trick that made alarm chipping a meaningful response to predators, but at least in this case, for all the birds’ evident fury, their chipping had done nothing to prevent the snake’s attack.

Well. In this case, actually, the parents’ chipping had summoned a meddling and sentimental ornithologist who removed the offending predator. But that’s probably not a good general strategy for nest defense.

Stay safe, little ones.

Stay safe, little ones.

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5 thoughts on “A predator caught in the act

  1. I love this post! It’s exactly what I would have done! Matter of fact, I HAVE done it, only with the beautiful Golden Garden Spiders (Argiope aurantia) and bees. The spiders have a knack for putting their orb webs right in the middle of the lavender and catmint, where the honey and bumble bee traffic is heaviest. I always carefully ‘re-home’ the spiders to a place where the bees are not feeding.

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