Barking Up the Wrong Tree: Climbing Performance of Rat Snakes and Its Implications for Depredation of Avian Nests

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Nest depredation is the leading cause of nest failure in Neotropical Nearctic migratory birds, which are of interest because of their declining populations. In a recent study in a bottomland hardwood forest, Acadian Flycatchers(Empidonax virescens) experienced higher nest success in Nuttall oak (Quercus nuttallii), a tree species with relatively smooth bark at maturity. To determine if variation in bark-surface irregularities may influence the ability of a predator species to access the contents of avian nests, we examined the climbing abilities of rat snakes (Elaphe obsoleta) on trees having three different bark types. None of the subjects was able to ascend large Nuttall oaks in the absence of vines; with vines present, subjects still required more time to climb Nuttall oaks than to climb other species. A few of the subjects successfully climbed smaller Nuttall oaks lacking vines, but ascent time was longer and climbing behavior was modified from that observed in the other trials. Our results indicate that the likelihood of nest predation by rat snakes decreases in this forest when birds nest in trees with smooth bark and without vines. Investigators need to consider differences among nest substrates that are important to both the prey and the predator.


Mullin, Stephen J., and Robert J. Cooper. "Barking up the wrong tree: climbing performance of rat snakes and its implications for depredation of avian nests." Canadian Journal of Zoology 80, no. 4 (2002): 591-595.


DOI: 10.1139/Z02-042



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