Gluttony may actually be a deadly sin (for seabirds)

22 07 2010

Royal Tern found by Rebecca Bell in Georgia in February.

We see some strange things here at SEANET. One might think that wild birds would not do anything so dumb as to try to eat a much-too-big prey item and then die by choking on it, but it appears that it does happen with surprising frequency.

Recently, our own Dr. Julie Ellis found a kingfisher thrashing around  in the road. She stopped to examine the bird, which appeared about to expire, and discovered a large fish protruding from its bill. She extracted the fish, and released the bird which flew off erratically. Its ultimate fate remains unknown.

Two Seanetters have found birds dead with incriminating half-swallowed fish at the crime scene. Rebecca Bell of Georgia found a Royal Tern, while Dennis Minsky found a juvenile Great Black-Backed Gull. While it’s not possible to determine from the pictures whether death was caused by strangulation subsequent to an episode of eyes-bigger-than-head disease, it is not unprecendented in seabirds. Northern Gannets have been found dead with large striped bass lodged in the esophagus. Post-mortem examination has shown that the birds died when the blood vessels to the head were constricted by the pressure of the fish against their walls.

Great Black-Backed Gull with fish in mouth found by Dennis Minksy. Revenge of the prey fish?

"Clammy" the Common Eider: he apparently bit off more than he could chew.

Another means of death by food is demonstrated by the unfortunate Common Eider shown here. Affectionately known as “Clammy” in the SEANET office, the bird likely died of dehydration based on the position of the shell obstructing the entire oral cavity.

Certainly, nature is brutal in its dealings with the less fit individuals of a species. And there is a possibility that these birds were killed by some other cause while in the act of swallowing a fish, but it seems plausible that the fish itself dealt the fatal blow. At the least, these instances stike the SEANET blogger as grimly absurd, and sometimes seem reminiscent of the close of a Shakespearean tragedy, where heroes and villians, killers and victims all lie dead in a great heap. Forgive the hyperbole, Seanetters, for it is late in the day and your blogger is dangerously decaffeinated.

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