Nightjars: camouflage doesn’t always help

[JAC note: As Matthew emphasizes below, the second video is a bit gruesome, so read the notes before you watch it. As for Matthew’s Nightjar Fetish, we’re still trying to get him help.]

by Matthew Cobb

From the number of photos we’ve posted here, I think by now we’re all  convinced that nightjar camouflage is pretty amazing. The reason is obvious – ground-nesting birds are living life dangerously, and need all the help they can get in keeping out of the way of predators.

But as these two striking videos from @SensoryEcology (aka Martin Stevens from Exeter University at Falmouth) show, the best visual camouflage won’t help against predators that either just stumble across your nest, or are perhaps using smell to find you (in some ground-nesting birds like red knot, there is some evidence that predators find it more difficult to detect them in the nesting season, as they adopt a chemical camouflage).

The first video shows a lesser spotted genet nomming some fiery-necked nightjar eggs in Zambia, during the night. Great for the genet, less so for the nightjar and its babies:

The second video, also taken in Kenya but of a Mozambique nightjar, may be NSFL for some of you, as it shows what happens when a bunch of ants overrun a nightjar nest and attack the chicks. What’s striking is the adult’s inability to respond in any meaningful way beyond sounding an alarm/distress call. Either it doesn’t understand what is happening, or it can’t think of anything to do. Just goes to show that not all of these feathered dinosaurs are as smart as the corvids. Martin points out in the YouTube notes that the chick didn’t survive.


  1. bonetired
    Posted February 11, 2014 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    That second video is quiet extraordinary. The nightjar’s defence is camouflage and so it is quite helpless against the ants. I was more astonished by the ants to be honest. I know that there are meat-eating ants around the world but I still find their behaviour quite extraordinary.

    • Posted February 11, 2014 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

      This scene was repeated millions of times in Texas when the fire ants arrived in the 80’s. Anything stuck on the ground (including not only some bird nests but also almost all reptile nests, and reptile adults for that matter) were antfood. An amazing, horrible, landscape-wide ecological transformation, which went almost unnoticed by the general public.

  2. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted February 11, 2014 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    not all of these feathered dinosaurs are as smart as the corvids.

    As they say on Slashdot, I for one welcome our new corvid overlords!
    But yeah, it’s probably a good thing that the dinosaurs – feathered and not-so-feathered – didn’t match the corvids for intelligence and adaptability. As has been suggested in some of the more breathlessly sensationalist documentaries about the “terror birds” of the pre-Pleistocene world, the Americas in particular, they would have been really formidable foes to early humans.
    Y’know, I’m intellectually attraced to the idea of trying to bring back the Moa. The encounters between them and the newly colonizing New Zealanders had the makings of being really interesting. But … maybe it would be a good idea to bring them back into existence on some large, barely inhabited island a long way from anywhere. Rather like New Zealand, in fact …
    Moa drumstick, anyone? Share?

    • Posted February 11, 2014 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

      As they say on Slashdot

      Don’t know if you saw Slashdot last week, but chances are good that nobody of significance will be saying much of anything there much longer.

      The short version is that they’ve got this horrific new “Beta” version that’s a complete abomination that they tried to foist on everybody. (Slashdot got bought out by Dice not long ago, and this is clearly an effort coming from the new corporate overlords.) The response from the management made clear that they view the contributors as passive consumers, which not only understandably pissed everybody off even more, but also demonstrated that, even if they make things right with respect to the Beta, it’s only a matter of time before they fuck something else up.

      There’s a boycott going on this week (February 10 — 17), and at least one serious effort underway to build an alternative. They’re calling it, “SoylentNews…which inspires a lot less confidence in me than what some of the earlier signs were suggesting might be reasonable to expect. Still, if they even come marginally close to pulling it off, there’ll likely be a near-instant mass exodus.



      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted February 12, 2014 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

        I’ve suffered the bombardment of every discussion thread by “Fsck BETA” graffiti. Which itself is the most serious threat to the site’s survival that I’ve ever seen.
        I’m a 5-digit UID – but I’d have to log in to check if it’s greater or less than 2^14. Been there a loong time. And the anti-BETA campaign is the worst threat to the site I’ve ever seen. (Incidentally, I’ve not seen the BETA.)

        • Posted February 12, 2014 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

          My UID would be almost exactly one order of magnitude larger than yours.

          If you’d seen the BETA site, you might well revise your evaluation, and place anti-BETA second on that list.

          I’m dead serious — which, since you’re aware of the seriousness of the uproar, shouldn’t be too much of a stretch of the imagination.


          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted February 13, 2014 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

            To be honest, I’ve not seen the beta site at all. Nor even a link to the same, though I must admit to completely ignoring all the stuff round the edges of the screen and just RTFS, RTFA, then ATFQ.
            Just trying to find your posting ID … obvious searches fail … next most obvious … nope. Well, I’m sure we’ll meet at some point – there’s only a few 10s of thousands of active posters.
            Incidentally, my memory was wrong ; I’m under 16000.

            • Posted February 14, 2014 at 9:58 am | Permalink

              Username TrumpetPower!, UID ~180,000.


  3. gbjames
    Posted February 11, 2014 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    Everybody’s gotta eat, but I can’t help feeling sorry for the meals.

  4. Genie
    Posted February 11, 2014 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    The second video was hard to watch. I felt the bird was desperately aware of the situation and distressed. It was trying to save its chick.

  5. Diane G.
    Posted February 12, 2014 at 1:44 am | Permalink


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