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The Arctic

In the arctic regions of North America, Europe and Asia, various species of geese and ducks nest in association with Snowy Owls (Nyctea scandiaca), Rough-legged Hawks (Buteo lagopus), Peregrine Falcons (Falco peregrinus), Gyrfalcons (Falco rusticolus) and Merlins (Falco columbarius).  

The Snowy Owl and Rough-Legged Hawk feed primarily on lemmings (Lemmus and Dicrostonyx), and for this reason usually do not breed or nest successfully when lemming populations are low.  When this occurs, birds that nest under their protection must seek other protectors or suffer greatly increased predation on their eggs and young from predators.  (Summers et al. 1994; Tremblay et al. 1997). 

Fortunately, the Peregrine Falcon, Gyrfalcon and Merlin usually breed every year, and can provide a more reliable source of protection than Snowy Owls and Rough-legged Hawks.  However, these falcons are not as abundant as they were previously (due to the activities of humans), and have disappeared from many areas.

Birds nesting in association with the Snowy Owl include the Snow Goose (Chen caerulescens), Brant (Branta bernicla), Brent Goose (Branta branta), Red-breasted Goose (Branta ruficollis), Common Eider (Somateria mollissima) and King Eider (Somateria spectabilis) (Syroechkovskiy 1977; Syroechkovskiy et al. 1991 ; Litvin 1985; Dorogoi 1990; Summers et al. 1994, Menyushina 2000; Ebbinge & Spaans 2002; Quinn et al. 2003). 

Parmelee (1972, 1992) reports that in Canada, various races of the Snow Goose nest "in the immediate vicinity of nesting Snowy Owls, even though unlimited nesting areas [elsewhere] are available to the geese, and the owls usually commence nesting before their arrival."  Subsequent research has shown that Snow Geese have better nesting success when they breed within several hundred meters of Snowy Owl nests than when they do not (Lepage et al. 1996; Tremblay et al. 1997; Bęty et al. 2001). 

Snowy Owls are reported to "attack almost anything they consider threatening to their eggs or young...up to one kilometer from their nest (Parmelee 1992)."   Examples illustrate this point.   Tremblay et al. (1997) observed a Snowy Owl attacking an Arctic Wolf (Canis lupus) 750 meters from its nest and successfully driving it away.  Summers et al. (1994) found that Snowy Owls typically excluded Arctic Foxes (Alopex lagopus) within a 200-300 meter radius of their nests, and up to 500 meters during years of high lemming abundance.

Bęty et al. (2001) conducted a field experiment to test the idea that Snowy Owls reduce predation risk for Snow Geese nesting near them.  They placed artificial goose nests and eggs at varying distances ( less than 550 m) from the nests of Snowy Owls, and also in control areas without Snowy Owls.  After 17 days, 38% of the nests had been depredated in the Snowy Owl nest zone, while 100% of the nests had been predated on in the control areas without Snowy Owl nests.  The latter figure of 100% for the control zone was reached after only 6 days.

On Vaygach Island in arctic Russia, the Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis) is reported to nest in association with the Rough-legged Hawk (Syroechkovskiy et al. 1991).   During 1986 and 1987, when Rough-legged Hawks there did not raise any young because lemmings were scarce, less than 5% of Barnacle Goose nests were successful (most goose nests that failed were lost to Arctic Foxes).  However, in 1988, when lemming abundance was average and Rough-legged Hawks nested, 77% of Barnacle Goose nests were successful.  In this latter year, the researchers found 10 different colonies of Barnacle Geese, each containing up to 20 nests.  All were located near nesting Rough-legged Hawks (Syroechkovskiy et al. 1991). 

Other birds known to nest in association with the Rough-legged Hawk include the Red-breasted Goose, White-fronted Goose (Anser albifrons) and Snow Goose (Kretchmar 1965; Dement'ev & Gladkov 1967; Parmelee 1972; Lepage et al. 1996; Bęty et al. 2001).

In the arctic, protective nesting associations of birds with falcons have not been studied as much as those with owls and hawks.  However, enough evidence is available to suggest that some birds rely on them for protection.   For example, in arctic Russia,  the Red-breasted Goose is reported to build its nests in colonies within 100 meters of Peregrine Falcon nests (Kretchmar 1965; Dement'ev and Gladkov 1967, Prop and Quinn 2003), and the White-fronted Goose is said to sometimes build its nests near the nests of Merlins and other falcons (Dement'ev and Gladkov 1967).  Quinn and Kokorev (2002) report that Red-breasted Goose nests placed less than 20 meters from a Peregrine Falcon eyrie were never predated, and the likelihood of a goose nest being predated by other animals increased with distance from an eyrie. 

In Swedish Lappland, Wiklund (1982) found that Fieldfares (Turdus pilaris) nesting near Merlins lost fewer nests to predators, and therefore produced on average more fledglings per nest, than Fieldfares nesting without Merlins.  This association was also beneficial for the Merlins, as these falcons fledged on average one chick more per Merlin pair when they nested near Fieldfares, than when they nested away from Fieldfares (Wiklund 1979, see also Slagsvold 1980ab). 

Discussion and Conclusions

From the many examples cited above, we have seen that some birds nest in association with hawks, owls and falcons, and that by doing so they often increase the survival of their own nests and young.  Of course, the simple fact that a bird is found nesting near a raptor does not in itself prove that the raptor protects the bird and its nest.  For example, if a special nesting site is rare and preferred by both a raptor and another bird, the bird might be nesting near the raptor because it did not have a choice of nesting elsewhere (Donazar et al. 1996; Quinn et al. 2003). 

Also, if both the raptor and the other bird choose to nest in an area of low predation risk that is located adjacent to an area of high predation risk, more nests will survive near the raptor even if the raptor does not protect the other bird's nest (Bogliani et al. 1999).  In order to prove that a hawk, owl or falcon actually protects the nest of another bird, careful field studies must be made comparing the nesting success of birds near the raptor to those nesting further away from it, while most other factors are kept constant.  Many studies cited above present such evidence.

Hawks, owls and falcons provide at least two services to the birds nesting with them. First, the formidable nature of these raptors and their spirited defense of their own nest drives away many predators from the area, decreasing the probability of predators encountering the nests of other birds. Second, because the eyes of raptors are often sharper than most other birds, they may detect predators earlier and consequently give the other birds nesting with them more time to prepare for a possible encounter with a predator. 

Nesting near a raptor, however, can be hazardous since it often heightens the risk that the associating bird or its young will be eaten by the raptorTherefore, birds can be expected to nest under raptor protection primarily when the estimated risk from other nest predators exceeds that from the raptor (Haemig 1997, 1999, 2001). 

Risk of predation from the raptor can vary, depending on many factors such as the availability of alternative prey (Larsen 2000; Ebbinge & Spaans 2002), the presence of cover in which the associating bird can hide itself and its nest from the raptor (Suhonen et al. 1994; Wheelwright et al. 1997), and body size differences of the two birds (Suhonen et al 1994; Norrdahl et al. 1995).  The risk of predation from other nest predators can also vary according to these factors, and to additional ones such as the abundance of the other predators (Haemig 1997, 1999).

Birds nest with other kinds of formidable animals such as ants, bees, wasps, crocodiles, spiders, skuas, gulls, and terns, and receive protection from them just as they do from raptors. A general review of these animal protectors of bird nests by Haemig (2001), advocates their use in biodiversity conservation and wildlife management to help birds survive the increased numbers of nest predators that often result from human modifications of environments. 

It is interesting to note that while plants have long been recognized as protectors of bird nests, and manipulation of vegetation has often been incorporated into wildlife management strategies to decrease predation on bird nests, the role of formidable animals as protectors of bird nests has been largely ignored by wildlife managers, and no attempts have been made to intentionally use them in programs to decrease predation rates on other birds' nests (Haemig 2001).  Formidable animals like hawks, owls and falcons thus represent a potential, untapped resource that could be developed and utilized by wildlife managers to help preserve avian biodiversity (Haemig 2001).

Literature Cited

Bęty J, Gauthier G, Giroux J-F, Korpimäki E.  (2001)  Are goose nesting success and lemming cycles linked?  Interplay between nest density and predators.  Oikos 93: 388-400

Bijlsma RJ  (1984)  Over der broedassociatie tussen Houtduiven Columba palumbus en Boomvalken Falco subbuteo.  Limosa 57: 133-139

Blanco G, Tella JL  (1997)  Protective association and breeding advantages of choughs nesting in lesser kestrel colonies. Animal Behaviour 54: 335-342

Bogliani G, Barbieri F, Tiso E  (1992)  Nesting association between the woodpigeon (Columba palumbus) and the hobby (Falco subbuteo).  Journal of Raptor Research 26: 263-265

Bogliani G, Sergio F, Tavecchia G  (1999)  Woodpigeons nesting in association with hobby falcons: advantages and choice rules. Animal Behaviour 57: 125-131

Collar NJ  (1978)  Association of nesting woodpigeons and hobbies.  British Birds 71: 545-546

Donazar JA, Travaini A, Rodriguez A, Ceballos O, Hiraldo F  (1996)  Nesting association of raptors and Buff-necked Ibis in Argentinean Patagonia.  Colonial Waterbirds 19: 111-115

Dorogoi IV  (1990)  Factors influencing communal nesting of Snowy Owls and Anseriformes on Wrangel Island (in Russian, with English summary). Ornitologija 24: 26-33 

Ebbinge BS  (2000)  The role of predators in regulating goose numbers.  In: Heritage of the Russian Arctic: Research, Conservation and International Co-operation (Eds: Ebbinge BS, Masourov YL, Tomkovich PS), pp. 348-356.  Moscow: Ecopros

Ebbinge BS, Spaans B  (2002)  How do Brent Geese (Branta b. bernicla) cope with evil?  Complex relationships between predators and prey.  J. Ornithol. 143: 33-42

Haemig PD  (1997)  Interactions between ants and birds in trees of a boreal forest.  PhD Dissertation, Umeĺ University, Sweden

Haemig PD  (1999)  Predation risk alters interactions among species:  competition and facilitation between ants and nesting birds in a boreal forest.  Ecology Letters 2: 178-184

Haemig PD  (2001)  Symbiotic nesting of birds with formidable animals: a review with applications to biodiversity conservation.  Biodiversity and Conservation 10: 527-540

Kretchmar AV  (1965)  Brutbiolgie der Rothalsgans, Branta ruficollis (Pallas), in West-Taimyr.  J. Ornithol. 106: 440-445

Larsen T  (2000)  Influence of rodent density on nesting associations involving the bar-tailed godwit Limosa lapponica.  Ibis 142: 476-481

LePage D, Gauthier G, Reed A  (1996)  Breeding site infidelity in Greater Snow Geese: a consequence of constraints on laying date?  Canadian Journal of Zoology 74: 1866-1875

Litvin KE, Pulyaev AI, Syroechkovski V  (1985)  Colonies of the Snow Goose Anser caerulescens, Brent Goose Branta bernicla and Eider Somateria mollissima near Snowy Owl Nyctea scandiaca nests on Wrangel Island.  Zoologischeskii Zhurnal 64: 1012-1023

Menyushina IE  (2000)  Relationship between the Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca L), Common Eider (Somateria mollissima L) and Snow Goose (Chen caerulescens caerulescens L) during the nesting season on Wrangel Island.  In: Heritage of the Russian Arctic: Research, Conservation and International Cooperation (Eds: Ebbinge BS, Mazourov YL, Tomkovich PS), pp 363-371, Moscow: Ecopros

Norrdahl K, Suhonen, J, Hemminki O, Korpimäki E  (1995)  Predator presence may benefit – kestrels protect curlew nests against nest predators.  Oecologia 101: 105-109

Parmelee DF  (1972)  Canada's incredible arctic owls.  Beaver (summer): 30-41

Parmelee DF  (1992)   Snowy Owl.  The Birds of North America #10

Popham HL  (1897)  Notes of birds observed on the Yenesei River, Siberia, in 1895.  Ibis 3: 89-108

Prop J, Quinn JL  (2003)  Constrained by available raptor hosts and islands:  density-dependent reproductive success in red-breasted geese.  Oikos 102: 571-580

Quinn JL, Kokorev Y  (2002)  Trading-off risks from predators and from aggressive hosts.  Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 51: 455-460. [Caution: Quinn and Kokorev's paper contains a false claim for priority.  These authors fail to cite at least 3 previous publications (Haemig 1997, 1999, 2001) reporting that nesting associates trade-off risks from predators and aggressive hosts, and instead wrongly claim that they may be the first to find evidence suggesting these trade-offs.]

Quinn JL, Prop J, Kokorev Y, Black JM  (2003)  Predator protection or similar habitat selection in red-breasted goose nesting associations: extremes along a continuum.  Animal Behaviour 65: 297-307

Slagsvold, T.  (1980a)  Egg predation in woodland in relation to the presence and density of breeding fieldfares Turdus pilaris.  Ornis Scandinavica 11:92-98

Slagsvold, T.  (1980b)  Habitat selection in birds: on the presence of other bird species with special regard to Turdus pilaris.  Journal of Animal Ecology 49:523-536

Snyder NF, Snyder H  (2000)  The California Condor.  Academic Press, San Diego

Suhonen J., Norrdahl K., E. Korpimäki.  (1994)  Avian predation risk modifies breeding bird community on a farmland area.  Ecology 75: 1626-1634

Syroechkovskiy YV  (1977)  Colonies of Anserini around nests of Snowy Owls (in Russian).  Ornithologija 13: 211-212

Syroechkovskiy YV, Litvin KY, Ebbinge BS  (1991)  Breeding success of geese and swans on Vaygach Island (USSR) during 1986-1988; interplay of weather and arctic fox predation.  Ardea 79: 373-382

Summers RW, Underhill LG, Syroechkovski EE, Lappo HG, Prys-Jones RP, Karpov V  (1994)  The breeding biology of Dark-bellied Brent Geese Branta b. bernicla and King Eiders Somateria spectabilis on the northeastern Taimyr Peninsula, especially in relation to Snowy Owl Nyctea scandiaca nests. Wildfowl 45: 110-118

Tremblay JP, Gauthier G, Lepage D, Desrochers, A  (1997) Factors affecting nesting success in greater snow geese: effects of habitat and association with Snowy Owls. Wilson Bulletin 109: 449-461

Uchida H  (1986)  Passerine birds nesting close to the nests of birds of prey.  Japanese Journal of Ornithology 35: 25-32 (in Japanese with English summary).

Ueta M  (1994a)  Azure-winged magpies, Cyanopica cyana, ‘parasitise’nest defense provided by Japanese lesser sparrowhawks, Accipiter gularis.  Animal Behaviour 48: 871-874

Ueta M  (1994b)  Nest abandonment by Japanese Lesser Sparrowhawks Accipiter gularis resulting in predation of nests of nearby Azure-winged Magpies Cyanopica cyana.  Strix 13: 205-208 (in Japanese with English summary).

Ueta M  (1998)  Azure-winged Magpies avoid nest predation by nesting near a Japanese Lesser Sparrowhawk’s nest.  Condor 100: 400-402

Ueta M  (1999)  Cost of nest defense in Azure-winged Magpies.  Journal of Avian Biology 30: 326-328.

Ueta M  (2001)  Azure-winged magpies avoid nest predation by breeding synchronously with Japanese lesser sparrowhawks.  Animal Behaviour 61: 1007-1012

Wheelwright NT, Lawler JJ, Weinstein JH  (1997)  Nest-site selection in savannah sparrows: using gulls as scarecrows?  Animal Behaviour 53: 197-208

Wiklund CG  (1979)  Increased breeding success for merlins Falco columbarius nesting among colonies of fieldfares Turdus pilaris.  Ibis 121: 109-111

Wiklund CG (1982)  Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris) breeding success in relation to colony size, nest position and association with merlins (Falco columbarius).  Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 11: 165-172

Information about this Review

This review is also available in the following languages:

Portuguese    Spanish

The author is:  Dr. Paul D. Haemig (PhD in Animal Ecology)

The proper citation is:

Haemig PD  2012   Hawks, owls and falcons that protect nesting birds.  ECOLOGY.INFO #3

If you are aware of any important scientific publications about hawks, owls or falcons protecting nesting birds that were omitted from this review, or have other suggestions for improving it, please contact the author at his e-mail address: 

director {at} ecology.info

The image at the top of this page was created by Steve Maslowski and shows an Arctic Peregrine Falcon.

© Copyright 2001-2012 Ecology Online Sweden.  All rights reserved.

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