Terrestrial or land invertebrates (animals without backbones) are favourite food for many birds. Insects and spiders are regularly taken, as well as molluscs. Centipedes are also food for birds, especially the smaller species. Larger tropical centipedes are another matter (above). Some have the ability to kill lizards, toads, mice and nestling birds. And even bats. What makes centipedes dangerous is the presence of a pair of sharp, poison claws found just behind the head. The bigger species thus need special handling by birds that use them for food. Just like bees, that mainly bee-eaters are capable of dealing with.
Centipedes have a soft, segmented body with a pair of legs attached to each segment. Unlike millipedes that are armour-plated, slow moving and vegetarians, centipedes are carnivorous and fast moving. They are found in damp places and usually emerge under cover of darkness (nocturnal) to hunt soil-living invertebrates like insects, earthworms and snails.
In June 2007, Banard Lau encountered a Rufous-browed Flycatcher (Ficedula solitaris) catching a centipede in Frasers Hill, Malaysia and bringing it to feed its young… (see images below).
“I walked about 50 metres away from the first site where the Rufous-browed Flycatcher was observed bringing the centipede to feed its young. At the second site where I was actually waiting for the Lesser Shortwing (Brachypteryx leucophrys) to make an appearance, I noticed a movement on the embankment not 10 feet away from me. Walking closer to about a distance of about six feet, there was this flycatcher waiting patiently on a branch and fluttering to the ground several times. There was a rotting log of 8-10 inches diameter there – in the bushes by the embankment next to the path on Hemmant’s trail.
“Wow, I thought, another Rufous-browed Flycatcher’s nest. I must have waited for about five minutes, during which time the bird made several forays from its perch to the ground and back to its perch – all very quickly. I thought that it was careful not to show me its nest. Next it flew down swiftly to the ground and caught a little centipede and flew to an open clearing about 10 feet away.
“The bird began to peck the head, dropped the centipede, observed it for some time. The centipede was wriggling – so the bird kept on pecking the centipede a few more times on the head or the body. Finally, satisfied that the centipede was sufficiently immobilised, the flowerpecker picked it up and flew back in the general direction to its nest.
“If there were two chicks in the nest, then each must have had a lovely lunch of the centipede.”
Another account was by Chan Ah Lak who wrote: “Even raptors will not pass up a centipede I observed one Crested Serpent Eagle (Spilornis cheela) swooping down on a logging track in Belum and then landing on a branch to eat what it had caught. By the time I got my gear ready, only a small morsel was left but it could be identified positively as part of a red giant centipede. If I remember correctly, Choo Eng had a shot of a Blue-winged Pitta (Pitta moluccensis ) with a small centipede (left).
Yes, Tan Choo Eng did manage to witness a Blue-winged Pitta catching a centipede: “Between May to September 2006, a few Blue Winged Pittas were observed nesting at Kulim, Kedah. The feed for the nestlings and fledglings were predominantly earthworms, except on one occasion it was a mole cricket and another, a centipede.”
Choo Eng continues: “Between October 2006 and February 2007, a Common Hoopoe (Upupa epops), a vagrant, visited Juru in mainland Penang. It usually foraged on the ground as its main diet would be larvae and pupae, probably of some dung beetles. But one occasion it caught a centipede and stabbed it a few times before consuming it.”
Yong Ding Li, a new breed of enthusiastic Singapore birder chipped in: “Centipedes are rather nutritious morsels, I guess and birds would go through great lengths to get hold of it. Once I saw at Panti, Johor, a Chestnut-rumped Babbler (Stachyris maculata) fighting with a foot long Scolopendra centipede on the ground. The bird kept pecking the centipede at the rear, flying up a bush when the centipede struck. After 10 minutes it gave up and flew off with the rest of the flock. I also noted a few other encounters of birds taking centipedes.
The last word came from Tou Jing Yi, another Malaysian birder: “I think the commonest known bird that often eats centipedes is the Domestic Fowl. I have not heard or seen a wild junglefowl eating it, but anyway I think it should be eating centipedes. ‘Chicken fighting centipede’ is a common Chinese believe, there are also Chinese medicinal records claiming that the saliva of the fowl can disable the poison of the centipedes, so the chicken’s saliva is often used to apply on the wound of a centipede bite.”
Images by Banard Lau (Rufous-browed Flycatcher), Tan Choo Eng (Common Hoopoe), Ooi Beng Yean (Blue-winged Pitta) and YC (centipede). KC Tsang helped gather all the information as well as obtained the permission of the Malaysian birders to use their images.