Wesołowski T., Maziarz M. 2012. Dark tree cavities – a challenge for hole nesting birds? Journal of Avian Biology 43: 454-460.
Holes provide the safest nest sites for birds, but they are an underutilized resource; in natural forests there are usually more holes than birds that could use them. Some bird species could be prevented from nesting in holes because of their inability to operate in the low light conditions which occur in cavities. As no visual system can operate in complete darkness some nest cavities could be too dark to be useable even by hole-nesters. Thus, the light conditions within tree cavities could constrain both the evolution of the hole nesting habit, and the nest site choice of the hole-nesting birds. These ideas cannot be tested because little is known about the light conditions in cavities. We took an opportunity provided by ongoing studies of marsh tits Poecile palustris and great tits Parus major breeding in a primeval forest (Białowieża National Park, Poland) to measure illumination inside their nest cavities. We measured illuminance in cavities at daybreak, which is just after the parents commenced feeding nestlings. Only ca 1% of incoming light reached the level of the nest. Illuminance at nests of both species (median = 0.1–0.2 lx) fell within mesopic-scotopic range, where colour vision is impaired. Measurements in model cavities showed strong declines in illumination with distance from the entrance, with light levels typically as low as 0.01 lx at 40 cm from the cavity entrance. Thus cavities can be very dark, often too dark for the use of colour vision, and we suggest that ‘lighting’ requirements can affect the adoption of specific nest sites by hole nesting birds. We discuss implications of the findings for understanding the adaptations for hole-breeding in birds.