April 19, 2018, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Baby birds go missing from their nests all the time. Usually, the disappearances are chalked up to predation, but in extremely rare cases, parents have been observed removing their own chicks from their nests. In a new study from the University of Illinois, the mysterious and fatal behavior is documented in dickcissels for the first time.
"In the early days, chicks can't survive outside the nest. They can't regulate their temperature," says Jaime Coon, lead author of the paper and graduate student in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at U of I.
The researchers didn't go looking for birds committing parental infanticide. They had been monitoring dickcissel nests as part of a larger ongoing study examining the effects of fire, grazing, and herbicide application on the grassland-dwelling species. The team trained high-definition video cameras on the nests to monitor diet and feeding behavior.
Coon says these cameras are a huge leap forward for nest monitoring because they provide much greater resolution than traditional monitoring tools. The downside? The batteries only last a few hours. The fact that they caught this rare behavior in such a short timeframe is what makes the discovery so surprising.
In the video, the mother bird can be seen grasping a chick by the leg and carrying it out of the nest. "It's kind of brutal," Coon says.