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It’s thought that there are around 10,000 species of birds. Some are more vulnerable to predation than others, but they all have special ways of protecting themselves and their young.
In this article, we will explore the ingenious strategies that birds employ to outsmart predators and ensure their safety.
Bird Defense Mechanism Types
Living in the avian kingdom isn’t always easy. Not only are adult birds often under threat from predators, but they also have to think about how to protect their young and eggs. To this end, birds have an array of self-defense mechanisms, from spraying out chemicals to mimicry and everything in between.
Camouflage is one of the most basic yet effective forms of self-defense in all of the animal kingdom and it’s used by many creatures, including several species of birds. One of the most amazing masters of disguise within the avian world is the potoo. These birds have feathers that help them to blend in with the tree bark, and predators are none the wiser.
But it isn’t just colors that help birds to camouflage, some species even have patterns that help them to blend in. For example, the fiery-necked nightjar, an African species, has patterns that help it to blend in with the leaf litter. In fact, camouflage is a defense mechanism that’s often seen in ground nesting birds, and studies have shown it to be very effective.
Some birds aren’t blessed with plumage that helps them to blend in, so they have to employ different strategies. One such example of this is to use a distraction display to draw the attention of predators away from the nest, which may contain eggs or young birds.
Different species may behave in different manners when confronted by a nest predator. For example, this piping plover, and several other birds within this family, will fake an injury. This is often known as a broken wing display in which the bird will pretend to be injured to make it look vulnerable and distract the predator from its nest.
In most cases, the bird will make lots of noise and flap its wings, but there are some species that will even play dead.
But it doesn’t end there, some bird species will perform what is known as a wing flash, a type of diversionary display whereby the bird only shows its colors while it is moving. This gives it the benefit of looking like a completely different animal and throws predators off the scent.
A problem for a lot of birds is that predators will go for their nests, which contain tasty eggs and vulnerable chicks. Of course, as any good parent would, adult birds are keen to find a nesting location that’s going to limit their young’s exposure to predators.
One of the best ways to do this is to build a nest somewhere that predators cannot reach. The cactus wren, for example, builds its nest inside a hollow cactus. Those spiny protrusions are more than enough to keep out pesky snakes and other predators.
There are also some species, like the burrowing owl, that nest under the ground. This means that predators are unable to directly see the nest and what’s more, the young of this species even makes rattlesnake-like calls to send predators packing! (more on that later.)
Raptors are known for building their nests on a high-elevation platform that’s totally open. This allows them to keep an eye out for any predators that might be approaching.
Mimicry is another visual method for evading a predator, and it’s something that’s done by a lot of bird species. For example, the brown thornbill is known to mimic the call of the much larger hawk, which serves as a deterrent for predators. Not only this, but the call serves as an alarm for the young of the species, giving them enough time to escape the nest and find safety.
The marsh warbler, from Europe and Africa, is known to be able to imitate as many as 200 different bird species. What’s more, researchers believe that these birds will choose which call to use based on the situation in which they find themselves.
And it’s not limited to sounds, there are some birds that will mimic the appearance of other animals to save themselves from becoming a meal. A great example of this is the cinereous mourner, whose chicks look just like toxic caterpillars!
Did you know that there are some birds out there whose diet causes them to be toxic? This is usually the case with insectivore species, for example, the spur-winged goose that feeds on blister beetles. As a result of its diet, the bird benefits from toxins in its feathers and skin, which make it unpalatable and even dangerous to predators.
Not only this, but there are many bird species that are able to secrete toxic fluids when they are attacked. While there is one species, the Eurasian hoopoe, that produces smelly, bacteria-filled poop that it spreads on itself and its eggs, many birds will projectile vomit substances that are filled with nasty chemicals to deter predators.
Sometimes these chemicals can cause reactions such as numbness, irritation, or even death, and other times, it’s purely their foul stench that’s enough to drive a predator away.
Many bird species are known to live in large flocks and will work together for everything from taking care of the young to hunting. Moreover, these bird species will also work as a team to protect one another in an act known as mobbing.
Quite often, one bird will happen upon a threat and will use a specific call to alert the rest of the flock. This is a common behavior in seabirds but is also seen in many crows and jay species. Once the other members of the flock hear the call, they’ll all gather together to confuse and intimidate a predator.
They do this by diving and swooping at the target and making lots of noise. While these birds may be smaller than the predator, they’re more of a threat in large numbers.
Birds with Unique Defense Mechanisms
There are amazing birds around the world that have defense mechanisms that you and I could only dream about. They afford them protection but also play a role in what makes these species so unique and awesome.
1. Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis)
For most of us, projectile vomiting is something we want to avoid, but for the northern fulmar, it’s part of everyday life, and it’s not caused by illness. In actual fact, this species of seabird that’s found in the Northern Pacific and Atlantic Ocean regions uses this foul-smelling projectile liquid as a form of self-defense.
The northern fulmar regurgitates oils from its stomach when attacked by a predator, like a scavenger bird, fox, or squirrel. This oil, containing wax and triglycerides, coats the predator and, in the case of birds, makes it lose its waterproof covering. What’s more, these birds will even use this vomit-like substance to feed their young and sustain themselves on long flights; yummy!
2. Cinereous Mourner (Laniocera hypopyrra)
The cinereous mourner is a species found in the tropical forests of South America. What’s unique about its defensive behavior is that the young are able to deceive predators by looking just like a toxic caterpillar. It’s covered in orange feathers with black barbs, which look just like an insect that a snake or bird wouldn’t want to eat.
This is a form of mimicry known as Batesian mimicry, and it’s the first time it’s been observed in a harmless mimic avian species.
Not only do the young look like a toxic caterpillar, but they’ve also been observed behaving like one. At just a few days old, the chicks will bow their heads and bob up and down to look more like pulsating larvae!
3. Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus)
I think I speak for all of us when I say that we’d do anything to protect our children. Things would be no different if you were a piping plover. In fact, these birds go to great lengths to divert predators’ attention from their nest and chicks.
Adult piping plovers will defend their chicks by alerting them to the presence of a predator. But that’s not enough; to ensure that the chicks and nest are unharmed, the adults will feign a broken wing to lure the predator away. This is useful as they can quickly fly away, but the chicks are flightless for around 30 days. That said, for those first few weeks, their plumage helps them to blend in with the sandy substrate of the coasts on which they live.
4. Hooded Pitohui (Pitohui dichrous)
Hooded pitohuis are predated by larger birds and the infamous brown snake. However, while this snake species is known for its toxicity, it’s still pretty sensitive to the poison of the hooded pitohui.
Found in New Guinea, this species of songbird actually has poison in its skin and feathers. A toxin known as batrachotoxin is thought to come from the diet of beetles of this bird and can cause unpleasant symptoms like tingling and numbness if ingested by a predator.
5. European Roller (Coracias garrulus)
The European roller is unique as it’s the only bird of its species found in Europe. Of course, as with most animals, these birds are predated on and in this case, it’s large birds and raptors that are the problem.
In particular, they’re known to attack the nest and chicks, but these young birds have a cunning trick up their feathered sleeves; they spit out a foul-smelling orange vomit to deter any predator that dares to get too close! It’s thought that the vomit, and the chemicals it contains are a result of the diet of these birds (mainly grasshoppers.)
Not only does this horrible smell make predators want to run (or fly) in the opposite direction, but it also sends a signal to the parents that their chicks are in danger.
6. Potoo (Nyctibius spp.)
The potoo is a nocturnal bird related to the nightjar and is sometimes called the ghost bird because of its seeming invisibility.
While most birds will actively dissuade predators, the potoo has no need. It has mottled feathers that look almost identical to tree bark. In fact, these feathers offer such good camouflage that the potoo needs to do nothing more than remain extremely still. Predators, like monkeys or larger birds, often move past thinking that the potoo is nothing more than a broken branch.
7. Secretary Bird (Sagittarius serpentarius)
The secretary bird, native to Africa, is a large bird of prey that has a very unique way of getting a meal. It has very long legs and a kick force that measures up to five times the weight of the bird! (195 Newtons to be exact.)
Usually, they use this mechanism to catch prey, typically snakes, but they’re also known to defend themselves using their super strong legs. If one were to kick you, they’d deliver enough power to snap the bones in your arm.
Fortunately, adult secretary birds are rarely preyed upon but the juveniles may sometimes be attacked by large owls.
8. Harris’s Hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus)
Harris’s hawks are medium-sized raptors native to the southern parts of North America down to Chile and Argentina in South America. They’re sometimes called the wolf hawk, and that’s likely because of how they hunt.
These birds are known to hunt in groups of up to six, with some members flying ahead and scouting while others fly behind. It’s believed that this form of hunting enables them to take down prey without becoming vulnerable to their own predators. But it’s unique since most birds of prey hunt alone.
That said, while the adults don’t typically have any natural predators, the chicks are vulnerable to attacks by coyotes and owls. But since at least three adults are usually present around the nest, any predator would have a hard time snatching a meal.
9. Cactus Wren (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus)
The cactus wren takes its name from the simple fact that it builds its nest inside hollow cacti. But what is the point in this behavior? Well, quite simply, having a spiny place to call home means that predators are going to have a very hard time getting to you.
Animals like cats, coyotes, eagles, and snakes all prey on the cactus wren, and most are deterred by the spines on the cactus. However, it is known that whipsnakes may still be bold enough to prey on eggs within the nest but in this case, the birds will use alarm calls to attract their mates and will engage in mobbing to drive the predator away.
10. Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia)
The burrowing owl is one of the smallest owl species in the world, and it primarily inhabits desert environments, grasslands, and other open areas. This species faces numerous natural predators, including snakes, coyotes, and badgers, with the young being especially vulnerable.
But in order to avoid becoming a meal, burrowing owl chicks have a pretty impressive defense mechanism; they sound like a rattlesnake! Since a lot of predators are aware of the danger of rattlesnakes, they’re not going to enter the burrow looking for food.
This technique has been proven to be incredibly effective, and in one study, it was shown that ground squirrels were equally alarmed by the mimicry of a burrowing owl as they were from the noises of a real rattlesnake.
11. Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)
The turkey vulture is a new world species of vulture that can be found all over the Americas. Being a scavenger, carrion makes up the lion’s share of the turkey vulture’s diet and this can be regurgitated should the bird be attacked.
That’s right, turkey vultures are known to bring meat back up when faced with adversity. The stench of partially digested meat mixed with stomach acid is more than enough to put a would-be predator off its meal.
With that in mind, the turkey vulture is not known to have many natural predators, but that hardly comes as a surprise when you know what will happen if you try to catch one.
12. Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius)
Earlier, I talked about the piping plover, which uses a broken wing display to lure predators away from its nest and chicks. And it isn’t the only species to behave this way because the spotted sandpiper also puts on quite the show when threatened.
The adult bird will bend low to the ground and spread its wings while flapping and squealing to make a predator think it’s injured and therefore vulnerable. This draws its attention away from the nest and chicks.
But even non-nesting spotted sandpipers might give a performance when threatened as a way of warning off a predator. They will puff up their chests, spread their wings and tail feathers and open their bills wide to make themselves look more threatening.
13. Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus)
The killdeer is common in North America as well as some parts of South America where it’s found in moist areas. Despite its name, it doesn’t actually kill deer but takes its moniker from its call, which sounds like kill-dee kill-dee.
This species is another that uses a broken wing display in order to keep predators away from its nest. Not only does it feign an injury, but the bird will also continue luring the predator away from the nest, further and further, until it’s happy.
Once the predator sees this apparently vulnerable bird, it’ll approach but just as it gets close, the killdeer flies away. It’ll then start its performance once more, luring the predator closer before flying away again.
14. Black-Capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus)
The black-capped chickadee is a common sight in gardens and for all intents and purposes, looks quite sweet. But when these birds are attacked by a bird of prey, they become real little fighters. For starters, they are able to use calls to tell others of the same species about a predator, including its size and how much of a threat it is.
Once other black-capped chickadees are on board, the group will flock together and engage in mobbing behavior. They’ll form a protective line and noisily swoop at predators in large numbers. This is often enough to drive them away, even though a single chickadee wouldn’t pose much of a threat. There’s strength in numbers, as they say!
15. Eurasian Hoopoe (Upupa epops)
Nobody wants to eat something that’s covered in excrement and that seems to be a fact that the hoopoe has caught onto. These stinky birds are known to cover their eggs in smelly secretions to protect them from parasites like mosquitoes. There is a symbiotic bacteria present within this secretion, which is also beneficial to the egg.
If that wasn’t enough to deter pests, the female also covers her own body in this substance that smells like rotten meat. And if the chicks are unfortunate enough to encounter a cat or large predatory bird, they’ll spray liquid poop in their direction to make them run away in disgust.
16. African Spur-Winged Goose (Plectropterus gambensis)
Imagine feeding on a diet so toxic that it makes you poisonous; well, that’s exactly what the African spur-winged goose does. And this isn’t a unique trait as several other species of bird, such as the American ruffled grouse also behave in the same way.
The spur-winged goose feeds on a diet of beetles that contain a poison known as cantharidin. Just 10 mg of this toxin is enough to kill a human, but if you cook and eat the meat then your fate is decided. Since humans are the main predators of this bird, it’s probably best to stick with chicken!
17. Cassowary (Casuarius spp.)
The cassowary is hailed as being the world’s most dangerous bird. Not only are they large, but there are also records of them killing humans, with the latest being in 2019. They have a naturally aggressive nature, can grow up to 6 feet (1.8 meters) in height, and have 4-inch (10 cm) long talons, the middle of which is enough to kill a dog; scared yet?
Native to Australia and New Guinea, the cassowary not only has long claws, which it uses to defend itself, it also has a 5.9 inch (15 cm) casque on its head, which it uses to charge at predators and protect its skull. Before commencing an attack, these birds will ruffle their feathers and hiss as a warning to animals that predate it like crocs and dingoes.
If that wasn’t enough, these birds can weigh up to 160 lbs (73 kg) and will put all that force behind a kick that could be fatal.
18. Common Ostrich (Struthio camelus)
The common ostrich is the latest bird in the world, measuring up to 9.2 feet (2.8 meters) in males. While this is a flightless species, the ostrich is incredibly fast and can run at speeds of up to 43 mph (69 km/h). Naturally, its predators, such as lions, leopards, and hyenas, find it very difficult to keep up.
That said, these huge birds are also preyed on by cheetahs; the fastest land animal, which can run up to speeds of 74.5 mph (120 km/h), so they could easily outrun an ostrich. But if running at a rate of 23 feet (7 meters) per stride isn’t enough to get them out of harm’s way, ostriches can also deliver a seriously strong kick with the force of 2,000 per square inch (psi)!