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.
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!