Raising young is a stressful, disorientating time for any parent but one bird appears to have been so confused it was seen attempting to brood the chicks in a nearby nest of a hobby falcon – one of its known predators.
Filmmakers for BBC Two series Autumnwatch recorded a female woodpigeon repeatedly trying to brood hobby hatchlings but being pushed off the nest by the chicks’ parent.
The incredible sequence was filmed using a remote camera set up in a farm in Gloucestershire.
“I suspect the bird just became a bit confused,” said Dave Leech, senior research ecologist at the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO).
“It may have lost a brood of its own nearby and, still full of hormones associated with that stage of the nesting cycle, decided to brood the nearest available alternative.”
Hobbies are expert hunters of hirundines - fast-flying birds such as swallows and martins - but also take larger prey. A 1999 study of woodpigeon and hobby nest sites in Italy found that pigeons represented 15% of the total weight of nearby hobbies’ diet.
But the relationship between the two birds is more complex than a simple predator-prey scenario.
Woodpigeons will actually actively search for nest sites near nesting hobbies, sometimes to within a few metres. But why?
Hobbies are small but ferocious. The same study in Italy revealed that once hobby chicks were 15 days old, the intensity of nest defence by their parents against larger predators increased to the point where it also reduced predation on the imitation woodpigeon nests the scientists had placed near the hobby nests.
Only 20% of the dummy nests located less than 50m from hobby nests lost eggs to predators, while 70% of nests located greater than 100m suffered losses.
The scientists concluded that for woodpigeons, the benefits of enhanced nesting success outweighed the risks of being eaten by the hobbies, because other nest predators were very abundant in the area.
So, for woodpigeons at least, the old adage of "keep your friends close, and your enemies even closer" appears to be advantageous.
Big brother is watching you
Advancement in camera technology is giving us more opportunities to glimpse rare nesting behaviour, and helping scientists understand more about the secret lives of common animals in ways that could not have been achieved previously.
The BBC’s Springwatch series captured incredible events earlier this year, such as an adder predating goldfinch chicks and it also revealed the darker side of bittern chicks by capturing an incident of siblicide, where one chick eats another.
This latest remote camera clip of the woodpigeon also demonstrated just how strong the urge is to raise the next generation in the animal kingdom. The woodpigeon stood her ground on the nest from attacks by the parent hobby, only moving off after several attempts to push her off.
“At this time of the breeding season the parents are so up against it that the cost of making the odd error is far outweighed by the benefit of provisioning as rapidly as possible. These 'mistakes' are probably relatively infrequent, which means they're not often observed,” explained Dave.
“However, with the advent of nest cameras the number of incidents recorded is increasing rapidly - and the potential for the study of more typical behaviours is increasing too.”
You can watch the whole incredible story tonight in episode three of Autumnwatch at 20:00, Thursday 30th October on BBC Two.