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Cowards or clever guys: an alternative nest defence strategy employed by shrikes against magpies

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Red-backed shrikes (Lanius collurio) show a substantial variability in their nest defence behaviour, which usually follows the rules of optimal parental behaviour, vigorously attacking egg and chick predators and only passively guarding against harmless animals. Nevertheless, shrikes hesitate to attack the Eurasian magpie (Pica pica), which specializes in plundering passerine nests. Our previous studies have suggested that this behaviour may be the result of an alternative defence strategy, relying on nest crypsis. To test this hypothesis, at the shrike nests, we presented a magpie dummy associated with playbacks drawing the predators’ attention to the presence of the nest. We predicted that the presentation of a magpie dummy associated with shrike alarm calls moves the parents to action, causing them to chase the magpie away from the nest. We showed that the presence of a magpie dummy associated with shrike alarm calls elicits a significantly more active response in shrike parents compared to a magpie dummy associated with neutral song. Parents actively moved around the dummy and produced alarm calls; nevertheless, most of the tested pairs hesitated to attack the dummy. We may conclude that the low nest defence activity of shrike parents towards magpie dummy was partly the result of an alternative strategy, which may be cancelled out by alerting the predator to the location of the nest; nevertheless, shrikes seem to be afraid of the magpie and hesitate to attack it physically.

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Original data are provided in the Supplement (Supplemental Material Table S1).


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We thank Christopher Mark Steer for his proof reading and helpful comments on the manuscript. We also thank the Hradiště Military Training Area Regional Office for allowing us to conduct experiments within their training area.


This study was supported by University of South Bohemia (048/2019/P).

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PV participated on the design of experiments, conducted the data analyses and wrote most of the manuscript. MS participated on the design of experiments, participated on the data collection and manuscript preparation. MV participated on data collection and analyses, and manuscript preparation, JH and JN participated on the data collection and preparation of the manuscript. RF participated on the design of experiments. All authors have read the final version of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Petr Veselý.

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Authors declare no conflicts of interests.

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All applicable international, national, and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed. Permission for studies on wild red-backed shrikes was granted by the Ministry of the Environment of the Czech Republic (13842/2011-30), the license permitting experimentation with animals no. CZ01629 was offered by the Ministry of the Agriculture of the Czech Republic. This research adhered to the ASAB/ABS guidelines for the use of animals in research. Authors declare that the experiments comply with the current laws of the Czech Republic (and European union).

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Veselý, P., Syrová, M., Voháňková, M. et al. Cowards or clever guys: an alternative nest defence strategy employed by shrikes against magpies. Anim Cogn 25, 307–317 (2022).

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