Oriental whip snake having Olive-backed Sunbird for lunch

posted in: Feeding-vertebrates | 11

Johnny Wee recently documented an oriental whip snake (Ahaetulla prasina) catching and swallowing an Olive-backed Sunbird (Cinnyris jugularis). The catch was fast and sudden. Once firmly clasped between the jaws of the snake, there was no escape for the bird. Not even a struggle.


Next was the slow process of swallowing the bird. The snake took nearly an hour to completely swallow the sunbird.

The oriental whip snake is common around vegetation in rural and urban areas alike. It can grow up to 1.9 m long. Its slender green body has a pointed snout in side profile. It preys mainly on lizards but also eats frogs and small birds. The snake is mildly poisonous.

Note: According to R Subaraj, the bird is an immature Brown-throated Sunbird – see comment below.

11 Responses

  1. Subaraj

    Wow! These are great shots and a good record of this snake eating a bird.

    The bird in question is not an Olive-backed Sunbird though. It is actually an immature Brown-throated Sunbird. The pale patch around the eye, dull yelloiw underparts and lack of white in the outer tail feathers point to this while the orangy base to the bill and patchy yellow of underparts point to its age.

  2. YC

    In terms of speed in going after you, I think it is rather slow. But in catching prey, could be fast. I may be wrong.

  3. Lee Chiu San

    How fast is an Oriental Whip Snake? The answers are, very fast for the first one third, quite fast in vegetation, and still relatively fast on the ground.

    Let me explain. All snakes are carnivorous, but those that specialise in tackling active prey (which comprise the majority of species) are capable of a quick strike.

    To strike, the snake usually braces its rear end against either the ground or a branch, then coils the first third or half of the body into an “S” pattern. A sudden straightening of body muscles drives the head forward at great speed.

    The evolution of this feature peaks in the vipers, some of whose strikes are literally faster than the human eye can follow. Rattlesnake strikes have been measured with scientific instruments, and actual figures may be available on the Internet.

    The whip snake is also no slouch, and I can vouch that its strike is pretty quick, though I don’t believe that any scientific measurements have been made.

    You may not be able to avoid the strike if you attempt to handle a Singapore whip snake with your bare hands.

    As an aside, there appears to be considerable variation in the temperaments of whip snakes according to where they come from.

    Those from Singapore and Malaysia are short-tempered, whereas those from north of the Thai border are milder. Most exports for the pet reptile trade were from Thailand before the trade was regulated.

    The same has been noted among blood pythons (Python curtus). The Singapore and Malaysian specimens are snappy, while those from Sumatra tame down more readily.

    Back to the subject of speed, though Ahaetulla prasinus can sometimes be surprisingly lethargic and refuse to move even when prodded, when it decides to get going, it can really glide through the trees. This is true of all the slender-bodied tree snakes in Singapore and Malaysia such as bronze-backs, whip snakes and flying snakes. They slip right through vegetation and can be gone in a flash.

    These snakes are also pretty fast on the ground. Their slender bodies and whipping, side-to-side movements give the impression of speed greater than it actually is, but make no mistake, they cover ground at a good pace. If you try to catch one that has fallen out of a tree onto a field, you might not succeed, whereas there are many other species of snakes that are as good as in the bag once you get them onto a patch of open, bare land.

  4. K C Tsang

    From my personal experience our Singapore Whip Snakes can be quite choosy on who handles them, sometime back I posted a short blurb on the Whip Snake in BESG, Amy’s cousin was the one handling it, and the snake did not show any objections to being handled by her …

    I think the title was Beauty and the Beast ??

    Yes, Whip snakes can be very fast, I have seen one chasing a lizard at quite a speed …

  5. Lee Chiu San

    Hey, KC,
    did you check that snake’s passport to see if it was an illegal immigrant from Thailand? After all, enough specimens of Calotes versicolor, the Thai changeable lizard, have infiltrated Singapore to have established a sizeable colony here.

    But all kidding aside, as I said in the earlier post, sometimes whip snakes, even those native to Singapore, can be surprisingly lethargic for reasons that I cannot fathom.

    On the subject of snake strikes, as I had explained, the part of the body propelled by sudden straightening of the muscles moves at great speed.

    For most snakes, this represents the first 30% to 50% of the body length. If you are within that range, even if you try to parry or dodge, the chances are that the strike will hit its target.

    The advice that you will be safe from being bitten if you keep away a distance equal or more than the snake’s body length is generally, but NOT 100% true.

    It depends on the species of snake that you are dealing with. It would be true of small pythons, water snakes, kraits, coral snakes and other heavy-bodied and not very active species.

    Among the non-venomous snakes it is not true of bronzebacks and flyhing snakes. These are fast on the ground, and can quickly move towards you before striking.

    I also has a particularly painful experience with a Paradise Tree Snake (Chrysopelea paradisii) that braced itself against a big tree then suddenly straigntened to launch a strike at me.

    Because it was backed up against a solid launching platform, all the force of the muscled was deployed to propel the snake forwards and upwards. That particular snake was only about four feet long, but it slashed my thumb, which was at about waist level, when I was about six feet away.

    I would assume that this would be true of whip snakes, but very strangely, all those that I had ever come across in Singapore were either lethargic, or tried to get away very quickly. Not one ever struck at me in the wild, though I have seen captive specimens strike when feeding.

    Among the venomous snakes, you can be somewhat safe if you stay at least one body length away from most of the Singapore and Malaysian vipers, except for Trimeresurus purpureomaculatus, the shore pit viper. This bad-tempered mangrove-swamp inhabitant strikes without warning, almost instantly coils and strikes again, so you have to allow for a safety zone of multiple, not just one, body length.

    The same is true of cobras, because besides although their strikes are nowhere as fast as those of the pit vipers, they are generally rather fast when moving forward on the ground, and can advance on you very rapidly.

    And do not forget that our local black cobras spit their venom with amazing accuracy over distances greater than their body lengths.

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