Lately when I’ve went out to fill the feeders in the morning I have seen a couple casualties in the grass. Both small birds. I think recently fledged house sparrows. Decapitated, but no sign of a raptor attack with feathers everywhere. Pretty much intact. Just headless.
And then yesterday my wife calls me up near dusk and I see a common grackle in the act of another decapitation. And carefully drawing out flesh and such. Same kind of bird, small sparrow, and judging by the coat colour, fairly newly fledged.
So, question: how common is this behaviour? The grackles have, of course, been part of the feeder crowd since we started, maybe 10 years back. First time I’ve seen this, though.
I’m not sure how common it is in grackles, but even smaller birds like tits can kill even smaller birds and eat the brains, maybe that you saw multiple dead ones it means there’s bird that learnt that yooung birds are easy victims or a part of local population is into it?
I’ve seen this happen at a feeder before, though it was in the winter during very unusually cold and snowy weather, so all of the birds seemed desperate for food. The casualties almost seemed more predatory than territorial, as the grackles were feeding on the bodies. Other species, such as meadowlarks that had come up from nearby fields, were engaging in this behavior as well. Seems a bit odd that it would be happening during this time of year, but I don’t think it’s unheard of behavior. I wouldn’t know what actually leads to that, though.
Here’s my observations of this behavior:
I haven’t seen any attacks by grackles at feeding, just minor defensive attacks to them from robins. The robins have good reason, though, we have a lot of grackles here. If a robin nest is in the open in my neighborhood, it will probably fail from a grackle attack. Years ago, by our house, one got a robin about big enough to fledge. It looked predatory. I hadn’t thought about it before with them or seen indications, but a situation leading to an attack at the feeder sounds conceivable. Now I’m thinking it may be worth consideration when making feeding choices.
That’s pretty amazing that a Common Grackle would do that, but I suppose if it’s learned it’s an easy way to get a high-protein/calorie meal then it’s not all that surprising. “Easy” is the key here as this behavior can be found in lots of species that you might not expect; chipmunks eating bird eggs/chicks, herons eating pigeons/other birds/rodents, etc. On a trip my bird club took to south Texas some of the participants saw a Great-tailed Grackle eat a Black-throated Green Warbler. The size differential there is a bit more extreme and I believe the Great-tailed Grackle ate the Black-throated Green Warbler whole, so I suppose that example is a little bit less surprising.
That’s nature for ya, about risk versus reward!
“You can’t just suppress 65 million years of gut instinct.” They are descended from theropods!
We have two main feeders. One is a finch feeder inside the globe which allows sparrow-size and smaller finches in, and the other is a weighted bar, anti-squirrel feeder, which of course, thwarts the grackles and jays as well.
When the grackles come in, it chases most of the other birds away. Most of the grackles have learned by now that the squirrel-proof feeder demotes them to harvesting the spillover from the smaller birds. But you can really tell that they hate accepting this reality, and they seem extra frustrated and agitated. Perhaps this is part of what pushed them into harvesting the sparrows instead.
It does make me wonder sometimes if human feeder management and tech is selectively breeding aggression into more and more birds in general. After all, we do see that the most aggressive individuals do the best in the long run.
Thanks for all the feedback stories. Very interesting!
Maybe using non-salted salo at feeder would help for birds who need animal proteins? Tits and woodpeckers love it, grackles could be too.
Grackles are uncommon in Egypt. The common English name of the only Grackle we have, have recently changed from Tristram’s Grackle to Tristram’s Starling causing some confusion between old birders like myself. However, I never noticed such behaviour in them. Decapitation usually happens with the Great Grey Shrike which is nick named as the butcher bird. Also I have witnessed members of the Heron family eating whole toads so it would not surprise me if they eat small birds. I just hope that the Grackles’ behaviour is not due to pollutants in their food which disrupt their hormones and cause new aggressive behaviours.
Actually, I would expect that: don’t trust rodents.
I love this subject. So many people have the idea the bird songs are sung because birds are happy and unless otherwise witnessed, the whole bluebirds of Snow White appears to be a common place for people to stay in.
I get it, (And I’m not saying you’re doing it I’m saying that my experience with so many people is that birds are all friendly to each other),
My responses please sit down if you drink alcohol you might want to take a shot because it is literally the killing fields out there.
I had a friend/neighbor come over visibly upset because she and her charges (she was babysitting) witnessed a black crowned night heron gobble up a couple of Mallard chicks right in front of them.
I’ve seen red tail hawks fighting with kites I was within hours of being at a local place where there were some long eared and short eared owls and within a week the long eared owl was taken out completely by a red tailed hawk nothing left but feathers and bones.
You may think that well those are predatory birds and of course birds of prey are going to go after other birds but unless the bird is a specialist and not territorial… they are going to go at it.
It’s always a surprise and it’s quite shocking so I don’t blame you for inquiring about it but I think it happens a lot more than people realize.
To me it’s a shame that people have removed themselves so far from nature on a regular basis. It’s led to some very dangerous situation that people have put themselves in, in a natural setting.
People running after blackbear is trying to get close-ups with their iPhones and just disregarding dangerous situation on a regular basis.
I like talking to people who don’t frequent the outdoors but who are curious about things like this I think the more people embrace the concept of a SENSE OF PLACE by returning to the same place over and over and over again in order to understand the subtle nuances of nature assumed by so many.
Sorry…,I know I’m going off on a little bit of a tangent here but I think these concepts and curiosities are important.
There are three documentaries that I love to recommend. The first which is basically bringing Nature home, it’s called The Biggest Little Farm.
The second is called My Octopus Teacher. Which really highlights the basics of a sense of place, the embracing curiosity and how just being in a place repeatedly without trying to manipulate or interact with what I’d already there and how powerful and rewarding that can be. The last movie is by the same guy and his brother who did My Octopus Teacher and that’s called The Great Dance.
I totally agree that “My Octopus Teacher” is a masterpiece. One of its unique features is focusing on the warm emotions between the observer and his friend the Octopus. Also, as you expressed, it showed us how the naturalist kept going almost on a daily basis and bit by bit he understood the ecosystem very well.
I do not understand though if the attacks you observed, or the one of the Grackle are frequent or if they are rare? Is it a stress happening because of shortage pf prey for example, or an ongoing theme? And if it is a normal issue, why not more of us are witnessing it?
I remember watching a documentary about the “new” aggressive behaviours of the Polar Bear and that an individual charged at a woman who was passing by on a far enough distance. An autopsy of the female Polar Bear revealed distorted organs, a physical abnormality which might have caused a terrible stress for it and caused the aggression.
I suspect this sort of thing goes on all the time - we just don’t see it very often. Most things are opportunists - easier to eat birds at a feeder than hunt for insects. It’s likely a learned behaviour. Many animals have learned that living around humans and our garbage is an an easy source of food. Neither are many very smart or compassionate. A big pike will swallow a small duck without really thinking about it. I used to rear caterpillars for research, and very often we would put 5 or 6 in a cup and come back to only 2.
As for bird feeders, a friend of mine says if you feed the birds, you feed ALL the birds. Even the raptors that may use it as a convenient place to find food!
The emotional element can’t help but introduce observational biases, sure. But at the same time, that’s how we usually end up really understanding stuff.
These are not just other living specimens, they’re beings. As are we all. I tend to look at the behaviour stuff as opportunities that can help us create better understanding of the reality that these other beings exist in.
We all exist in our distinct realities, but we also share a lot of the same experiences and factors that shape them.
The Octopus Teacher show was great. But speaking of distinct realities, did anyone else not feel a deep, and powerful envy for the guy who could essentially jump off his back porch and explore such an exotic and beautiful, aquatic kelp wilderness? [sigh]
As to why do so many observers of nature find the killing behaviour of animals disgusting or judge them in human terms, I think it’s also important to remind ourselves that here, at the dawn of the Anthropocene, there’s really just one creature that has rapidly cornered the marking on the mass killing of all other creatures. For survival, sure. But also for sport and pure willful disregard in the pursuit of profit and power.
It’s no Disney film out there, but that’s what keeps it so real to me. Rather than try to rewrite the connection with nature in moral terms, we can use these observations to try and see things more clearly. There is so, so much to still understand. It’s that overwhelming sense of humility you get when you realize the scope of our ignorance that makes you want to go out and try to learn more.
(Sorry for the sermon to the choir. I read so many stories (even in these parts) that demonstrate that many of us still have real troubles seeing beyond the human perspective, and sometimes I can’t help but pray for an ‘amen’.)
At least this part of the choir agrees with you. I did a lot of reading about animal rights philosophy in the mid 1980’s and at that time anything less than ‘able to feel’ was sort of brushed aside. And that cutoff appeared to be at vertebrates. Which is fine - I’m no big fan of Factory Farming or large scale commercial fishing - but we also should come up with a system that values the life forms we don’t understand. Does an ant feel pain as we know it? I doubt it - I’ve seen ants and flies groom their antennae with both front legs even though one was not there. I’ve seen moths live over a week with no heads.
There is a lot of non-human life that exists in ways that we cannot understand. As an example, wild dogs kill large animals in ways that we would find inhumane, but that’s just how that life works.
We have a trait that allows us to have conscious, and to subsequently feel compassion for others, even if they are not humans. It’s good, yet it does not stop us from destroying the environment of beings not like us. Hell, it doesn’t even stop us from killing our own species.
APOLOGIES for the rant. These ideas occupy a significant part of my thoughts.
Amen. And thanks for those other movie titles. I’m going to check them out.
“Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”
(a great African proverb)
“You can start by stop being so proud about being human.”
I suppose that would explain all the copycat YouTube videos, where the snorkeler/freediver puts the octopus on her bikini-clad self. And me thinking, “Um, you know they bite?” To me, those videos, and that whole concept, is not that different from the aforementioned running after a bear to get a picture.
Oh, that reminds me of a really horrible thing I saw – one of “a series of unfortunate events” that turned me off working with small mammals forever. Two mice traveling together – probably siblings – both tried to enter the same cage trap. The first one to reach the back triggered the door, which snapped shut with the second mouse only partway in, pinning it in place by the head. By the time we got there, the mouse that was completely inside had eaten most of the face of the stuck one – its littermate with whom it had been traveling.
I don’t find humans to be much different. If you lose your wallet, even if you get it back, you wouldn’t expect the cash to still be in it, would you?
We found a wallet with lots of cash, driver’s license, etc. and returned it all to the owner, so humans don’t really equal to mice.
This happened twice in our community as well The wallet in both incidents returned intact.
Copycat is a prevalent concept on the internet unfortunately. It lacks authenticity and good intentions. The way the naturalist in “My Octopus Teacher” built his relationship with the Octopus was gradual and not provocative. In his daily quest, he even stumbled upon new species of marine life as mentioned at the end of the film. So should we because of our worry from copycat issues refrain from telling other people about our close encounters with wildlife?