Where do birds go when they die?

posted in: Miscellaneous | 7

The recent post on the Javan Myna (Acridotheres javanicus) chick that was predated by a cat brings to mind a common question many people ask: “Where do birds go when they die?” A related question I was recently asked was “Do birds die?” Such questions are understandable (or are they?), considering that with so many birds around, it is not common to come across dead birds.

Banding activities in our Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserves have shown that most of the sunbird species live at least five years. Many birds live much longer than this. But not all birds live as long, especially when they are victims of predation. Or when there is a food shortage and they starve.

I suppose when birds are about to die of sickness or old age, they do not move to some exposed areas. Usually they hide in the undergrowth or among the foliage of plants. And when they actually succumb to death, their bodies do not lie around as such for long.

I found a dead Yellow-vented Bulbul (Pycnonotus goiavier ) under some plants recently (left top). As an experiment, I left it on the ground and monitored its condition. Five days later (for some reason or other, the neighbour’s cat did not take it) most of the flesh was gone, leaving only feathers and bones (left middle). Another 12 days later, most of the bones had rotted and the feathers were fast disappearing (left bottom). So, under our hot and wet conditions, the carcase does not last long.

In the urban environment, you may come across the carcasses of dead birds in your garden. These are mostly victims of domestic cats (see 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5). These cats have been known to bring their trophies and place them at the feet of their owners. Or they may simply eat the dead birds outright.

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Anyway, dead birds do not remain around for long on the ground. Cats and other predators eat them up, the fleshy parts, that is. Within a few hours, if not within a day, the feathers would be ripped off and the flesh eaten, leaving behind the entrails and head. Even these disappear in no time at all, including the feathers and most of the bones. This was seen when the Javan Myna chick I was tending was predated by a cat. I recovered the carcase from the cat and left it in the garden (above left). By the next morning, nothing much was left (above right). Probably another cat ate it up.

These are the reasons why most people do not encounter dead birds in their daily lives. But this does not mean that birds do not die!

YC Wee
Singapore
May 2008

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7 Responses

  1. Fascinating, YC. Thanks for sharing your insight (and grisly photos!)

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  2. I also tried to answer this question inthis post

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  3. […] a cherry tree in their yard, it’s surely needless to say how much pleasure you probably derive fromBird Ecology Study Group Where do birds go when they die?In the urban environment, you may come across the carcasses of dead birds in your garden. … cats […]

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  4. This article gives some good facts, and supposed conclusions. However it does not conclusively answer the question of what “overall” happens to all the dead birds. There are litterly thousands of birds in a small area at a given time, and they all weren’t born on the same day. Hence, there should be many birds lying around every day visible to people. They can’t all be in a bush or hidden. Basically the only birds we see are one’s killed accidentally or by a prey. This mystery is still unsloved as far as I’m concerned. It’s truly remarkable. It seems like this question hits you at some point in your life, and you ask “why now”? Truly facinating!

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  5. Lee Chiu San

    I guess that many birds succumb to predation long before they die of old age. Among the species and genera common in aviculture, deterioration is noticeable for at least one or two years before the bird finally dies of old age.

    Signs are, thickening of the scales of the feet and legs. Inability to perch properly. Incomplete closure of the beak. Sparseness in the feathers resulting in noticeable difficulty in flight. Loss of weight and muscle tone.

    I can well imagine that such physically challenged birds would be easy targets for predators, and would not, in the wild, die a natural death.

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  6. Tou Jing Yi

    many bird carcasses may be eaten up by some ant colonies quick. Once there were 4 Purple-backed Starlings crashed into the windows in PJ and lie on the floor, that was Birdflu era and noyone dare touch the carcasses, within hours, the ants technically bared the skin and start to eat up the bird, I believe if they leave the bird for a day more, it will be reduced to technically bones, birds have a lot of fragile bones, being filled with air as an evolved character to fly, so a few footsteps, rain, wind, the bones will soon be gone as well, a reason why bird fossils are not as abundant and as complete as some other creatures, such as dinosaurs and mammals. Do notice some carnivores dont actually like to eat dead carcasses that are not killed by them, not sure if it is having a bad smell or maybe they thought the bird may be poisoned to dead, for some reason, dead birds are just left there and no cats are usually interested with it, other scavanger creatures however may pick them up, for example monitor lizards perhaps?

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  7. Jayshree Patel

    Thanks for sharing as I was always haunted by these questions

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