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RSOS Response time of an avian prey to a simulated hawk attack is slower in darker conditions, but is independent of hawk colour morph

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posted on 30.07.2019 by Carina Nebel, Petra Sumasgutner, Adrien Pajot, Arjun Amar

Manuscript published in the Royal Society Open Science:

Nebel, C., Sumasgutner, P., Pajot, A. and Amar A. Response times of an avian prey to a simulated hawk attack is slower in darker conditions, but is independent of hawk colour morph


To avoid predation, many species rely on vision to detect predators and initiate an escape response. The ability to detect predators may be lower in darker light conditions or with darker backgrounds. For birds, however, this has never been experimentally tested. We test the hypothesis that the response time of avian prey (feral pigeon Columbia livia f. domestica) to a simulated hawk attack (taxidermy mounted colour-polymorphic black sparrowhawk Accipiter melanoleucus) will differ depending on light levels or background colour. We predict that response will be slower under darker conditions, which would translate into higher predation risk. The speed of response of prey in relation to light level or background colour may also interact with the colour of the predator, and this idea underpins a key hypothesis proposed for the maintenance of different colour morphs in polymorphic raptors. We therefore test whether speed of reaction is influenced by the morph of the hawk (dark/light) in combination with light conditions (dull/bright), or background colours (black/white). We predict slowest responses to morphs under conditions that less contrast with the plumage of the hawk (e.g. light morph under bright light or white background). In support of our first hypothesis, pigeons reacted slower under duller light and with a black background. However, we found no support for the second hypothesis, with response times observed between the hawk morphs being irrespective of light levels or background colour. Our findings experimentally confirm that birds detect avian predators less efficiently under darker conditions. These conditions, for example, might occur during early mornings or in dense forests, which could lead to changes in anti-predator behaviours. However, our results provide no support that different morphs may be maintained in a population due to differential selective advantages linked to improved hunting efficiencies in different conditions due to crypsis.


DST-NRF Centre of Excellence

International Student's Scholarship

William C. Anderson Memorial Award (RRF)

Claude Leon Foundation



FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology