Avian distraction displays: a review

Rosalind K. Humphreys, Graeme D. Ruxton

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

22 Citations (Scopus)
15 Downloads (Pure)


Distraction displays are conspicuous behaviours functioning to distract a predator's attention away from the displayer's nest or young, thereby reducing the chance of offspring being discovered and predated. Distraction is one of the riskier parental care tactics, as its success derives from the displaying parent becoming the focus of a predator's attention. Such displays are prominent in birds, primarily shorebirds, but the last comprehensive review of distraction was in 1984. Our review aims to provide an updated synthesis of what is known about distraction displays in birds, and to open up new areas of study by highlighting some of the key avenues to explore and the broadened ecological perspectives that could be adopted in future research. We begin by drawing attention to the flexibility of form that distraction displays can take and providing an overview of the different avian taxa known to use anti‐predator distraction displays, also examining species‐specific sex differences in use. We then explore the adaptive value and evolution of distraction displays, before considering the variation seen in the timing of their use over a reproductive cycle. An evaluation of the efficacy of distraction compared with alternative anti‐predator tactics is then conducted via a cost–benefit analysis. Distraction displays are also found in a handful of non‐avian taxa, and we briefly consider these unusual cases. We conclude by postulating why distraction is primarily an avian behaviour and set out our suggestions for future research into the evolution and ecology of avian distraction displays.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1125-1145
Issue number4
Early online date8 Feb 2020
Publication statusPublished - 28 Sept 2020


  • Anti-predator defence
  • Behavioural ecology
  • Evolution
  • Nest defence
  • Parental care
  • Predator distraction


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