Cisticola nestlings mimic snakes to deter predators


A new study has documented fascinating behaviour in Zitting Cisticola nestlings in West Africa.

When a potential predator approached the nest, the youngsters were found to emit hissing noises – which researchers say closely matched the hissing of some snake species, a method designed to deter those animals looking for an easy meal.

Hissing has previously been documented in incubating hole-nesting female birds, but the findings in The Gambia by Clive Barlow and his colleagues represent the first time that it has been noted in the nestlings of any open-nesting passerine bird species.

Nestling Zitting Cisticolas were found to hiss like snakes when a potential predator approached the nest (Lee Johnson).

Mimicry is widespread in the animal kingdom, being a useful tool for animals to not only survive but also attract a mate to reproduce. Visual mimicry has been best studied by scientists, with acoustic mimcry less so.

Similar incidences of mimicry of snakes has occurred in a wide range of bird species. For example, the nestlings of Burrowing Owls will mimic the famous 'rattle' of a rattlesnake, while cavity-nesting tits have previously been found to make hissing sounds similar to snakes. 

Clive Barlow commented: "Being aware of the 1968 South African note on hissing behaviour in Zitting Cisticolas (the only reference known to us of hissing made by chicks in an open nest) we were excited so many years later to make the first sound recordings of the phenomenon. Our study was performed in The Gambia. We'd be interested to know if other populations of this widespread species, such as those in Europe or Asia, make similar sounds."



Barlow, C R, Liu, J, Xia, C, & Lang, W. 2023. Snake-like hissing calls made by nestlings of the open nesting zitting cisticola Cisticola juncidis. Ethology Ecology & Evolution. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/03949370.2023.2213206