Snake behavior and seasonal variation in nest survival of northern cardinals Cardinalis cardinalis


J. H. Sperry, Program in Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation Biology, Univ. of Illinois, 606 E. Healey Street, Champaign, IL 61820, USA. E-mail:


Seasonal variation in nest success is well documented for many bird species. Predator behavior has been suggested as a mechanism behind these seasonal patterns, but this hypothesis has received little attention. Here we test the hypothesis that predator behavior produces seasonal patterns of nest success by relating nest success of northern cardinals Cardinalis cardinalis to the activity of Texas rat snakes Elaphe obsoleta. Cardinal nest survival varied over the season and was lower when rat snakes were more active. The probability that a nest survived was associated both with when cardinals nested and with nest height, indicating that both temporal and habitat factors affected predation risk. The increased success of higher nests could be associated with some aspect of rat snakes’ climbing ability. In combination with results for two other species studied previously at the same location, our results for cardinals suggest that the specific seasonal pattern of nest success expected for a given bird species will depend on how its nesting season coincides with predator activity. Determining the generality of seasonal variation in predator behavior as a mechanism for producing seasonal patterns of avian nest success will require additional studies that investigate birds and their nest predators simultaneously.