Got blood? Great tits hunt bats

September 9, 2009 • 6:41 am

It’s not enough that blue tits once learned to open milk bottles left on British doorsteps, sipping the cream from the top. Now their relatives, great tits, have acquired a taste for blood (see here as well) hunting and killing bats in Hungary.

As the BBC reports (the link contains a video as well as a grisly photo of a half-eaten bat):

During two field seasons in the Bukk Mountains of northeastern Hungary, the researchers documented 16 cases of great tits (Parus major) hunting, killing and eating a hibernating bat in the one cave.

Pipistrelle bats (Pipistrellus pipistrellus) are about one-quarter of a great tit’s size.

The birds would fly close to the cave walls, landing frequently and often disappearing into crevices. They would either eat the bats there and then or carry them away for feeding.

When their hibernation is disturbed, the bats squeak in the audible range for humans and great tits.

The researchers speculated that the birds may have learned to listen for these squeaks – and when they recorded some and played them back, the birds responded with interest about 80% of the time.

I’m on the road today, and can’t get the original paper in Biology Letters describing the behavior, but I suspect that, like cream-stealing in blue tits, it comes from observational learning. During the lean winter months, hungry birds presumably watch — and follow — other birds committing chiropticide. But it could be genetically based and evolved. The decisive experiment would be difficult, involving hand-rearing tits in the lab and releasing them in bat caves where they could not observe other tits hunting.

At any rate, there’s something unseemly about a songbird eating a mammal. But, as Darwin pointed out with reference to ichneumon wasps, nature doesn’t care a fig about our squeamishness.

h/t: Matthew Cobb and reader Raymond, who has a thread about this over at Secular Cafe.

22 thoughts on “Got blood? Great tits hunt bats

  1. Birds came from dinosaurs, who also probably had no problem snacking on the little rodentlike mammals that crawled about their feet.

  2. And they think we worship Darwin, when clearly we worship great tits. Being bird lovers and all, of course.

    Oh come on, you (guys at least) were thinking (?) along the same lines.

    Seriously, interesting stuff. And I did notice a story a while back that said that warming didn’t threaten great tits, so they’ll be with us and providing adolescent humor for years in the future.

    Glen Davidson
    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

  3. At any rate, there’s something unseemly about a songbird eating a mammal.

    Shrikes and ravens beg to differ, I’m sure.

    1. Just because we are mammals does not mean our kind have special No Eat Me privs on the Great Food Chain of Life.

      Besides, we all taste like chicken as they said in The Matrix.

      1. Yes, they are. Most commonly a songbird is a bird that belongs to the order Passeriformes. Both ravens and shrikes are in this Order. My ornithology prof used to prefer to call them perching birds though.

        Cool story.

      1. Bats were actually furry, flying plants back then. They lost their chloroplasts after the vapor canopy collapsed, producing the Flood, and the spectrum of sunlight at Earth’s surface was radically altered.

  4. just because you covered with bright plumage and sing like a tit doesnt mean you are a pig. fodor was wrong: pigs do fly

  5. Survival does move life to do the unexpected. Reminds me of the deer that kill rabbits to get minerals from blood that can’t be obtained any other way on a British island.

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