For the Birds Radio Program: Bird-eating Fish

Original Air Date: Jan. 6, 1988

Sometimes fish turn the tables on birds. And sometimes birds feed fish without getting eaten.

Duration: 3′23″


(Recording of a Cardinal)

Most people know that some birds, like eagles, Osprey, gulls, and herons eat fish. But did you know that many kinds of fish take revenge? The angler fish of the Atlantic Coast is sometimes called the goosefish because it occasionally feeds on geese. One angler fish, when caught, had the remains of seven wild ducks in its stomach. The thresher shark, known in all temperate seas, attacks and swallows loons–that may be part of the reason our state bird is so eager to return to Minnesota every spring.

(Recording of a Common Loon)

Even huge pelicans aren’t safe from fish on the ocean–sharks have been known to sever their wings. And oceanic fish have managed to take quite a few land birds, too–one yellow-billed cuckoo was found inside a tiger shark in the Gulf of Mexico, and a ruffed grouse was found in an edible cod off Newfoundland.

Several species of freshwater fish also take birds. Pike in Canada take enormous numbers of young waterfowl in June and July, when the baby ducks swim in shallow water. One northern pike leaped into the air from Lake Minnetonka here in Minnesota and caught a black tern, which it dragged underwater to eat. Pike have also been known to take kingfishers. Bass often jump up and swallow small birds flycatching near the surface of a lake–they mainly get warblers and hummingbirds.

All in all, it’s a jungle out there–so it’s nice to hear about a bird and some fish that got along remarkably well. In North Carolina several years ago, a male Cardinal spent his summer feeding seven goldfish in a garden pool. No one knows exactly how the whole thing got started, but the theory is that the cardinal, who probably lost his own brood somehow, went to the pool for a drink and noticed the bright orange gaping mouths of the fish. The color pattern of the fishes’ mouths, so much like that of young cardinals, must have stimulated him to look for food, so he brought back a beakful of worms and stuffed them into the pleasantly surprised goldfish. After that, whenever he brought food to the pool fence and chirped loudly, the fish would crowd to the water’s edge, and sometimes even jump out of the water in their eagerness to be fed, and he would stuff more food into them. Many ornithologists would explain this behavior as simply a stimulus-response situation, and let it go at that, but Joel Carl Welty, who wrote one of the current leading ornithology texts, put it much more nicely. He said, “The two instinctive appetites, one to feed, the other to be fed, magnetically attracted each other, and a temporary, satisfying bond was set up.”

(Recording of a Cardinal)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”