Have you ever wondered why dead birds are so rarely seen? There may be as many as 430 billion birds on the planet, and they usually have pretty short lifespans. Yet we hardly ever find their remains.
Most birds have no control over where they die. The end might come swiftly from a collision with a window, or by the talons of a falcon or hawk. No matter how a bird dies, there's a very high possibility that a predator or scavenger will find it soon after and consume it. Birds that die in exposed areas are quickly discovered by animals like foxes, crows, or any other scavenging creatures.
Retreating to sheltered spaces to recover is the safest option for birds that are injured or sick. Those that do not make it will die in these hidden locations. They may escape the attention of the larger scavengers, but there are always smaller creatures like ants and flies around that will find them.
Read on to learn more about where birds go to die, and why we don’t see their bodies as often as you’d think. It’s a subject most people never think about, but the answers just might surprise you!
Predators or scavengers are usually very quick to find the remains of a dead bird
Most people have seen dead birds out in nature or even in their own backyards, but probably not as often as they would expect. There are three major reasons why we don’t see dead birds more often.
The first reason is that most birds will be caught and eaten by a predator, or at least be eaten soon after dying from another cause. The second reason is that uneaten birds decompose very quickly outdoors, and the last reason is that sick birds will find a hidden spot to rest but might never recover.
Continue reading to learn more about why dead birds are so rarely seen.
Wounded birds often find a hidden spot to rest
Many of the dead birds we see are those that are hit by cars and come to rest on the road where they are easily seen. Are they still there when you travel down the same road the next day?
Sometimes, but often they have been removed by a hungry animal. Very little goes to waste in nature because all sorts of scavenging organisms and decomposers exist. Other animals like raccoons, skunks, opossums, coyotes, house cats, and many others will eat dead birds. Other birds like hawks and crows will too.
Most ill or injured birds will be captured by predators pretty quickly. A coyote, for example, is fully capable of catching a healthy bird, but this requires great skill and ends in failure more often than success.
An injured bird presents a much easier target, however, and predators know this. They keep a close eye on the movements of other animals, always alert to signs of weakness.
Even birds that are not caught by predators or eaten by scavengers will be consumed by something. Birds are surprisingly small creatures beneath their bulky feathers and they decompose very quickly.
Ants and flies are always on the lookout for a meal, and they can feed quickly. Add decomposing bacteria to the mix and a small bird can be reduced to a few feathers in a matter of days.
Birds decompose rapidly, and their remains can be mostly gone within a few days
Birds do not often die drawn-out deaths in nature. Very few bird species have the freedom of occupying the top of the food chain, so they become easy prey when in poor health. In fact, for every songbird, there is a long list of capable predators that are on the lookout for an easy meal.
If a bird is in poor health, it will probably lay low, and attempt to stay hidden from predators. They will choose the shelter of dense brush or a cavity where they can attempt to recover.
Birds need to feed regularly, however, so they are forced to forage or succumb to energy loss. Dying birds often show some clear symptoms of distress. These can include:
An unfortunate sick sparrow on the ground
Birds die from a number of natural and human-related causes. It is difficult to quantify the most important causes of death because different bird species live such different lives. Let’s take a look at some of the most common causes of bird mortality.
Birds have very specialized, lightweight bodies that are relatively fragile. This is a classic trade-off for the power of flight. Unfortunately, a lightweight, fragile build and the ability to travel at great speed puts them at serious risk of injury from collisions. Birds certainly do collide with natural structures like tree limbs, but human-made structures are particularly deadly.
Windows are a classic example. Birds will attempt to fly through windows, especially where it looks like they can exit through another open window on the other side of the room. Windows are also highly reflective, so birds often fly into them thinking they are flying towards whatever is being reflected.
Windows are not the only things birds collide with of course. Moving cars, electricity and telephone lines, fences, towers, bridges, and buildings all pose significant risks to birds.
Collisions with windows are responsible for many bird deaths each year
Tens of millions of birds die from poisoning every year in the United States. These toxins include heavy metals like zinc and lead from mining waste, industrial and agricultural chemicals, pesticides, and even poisons like Avitrol that are specifically used to control birds.
Wild birds can contract a variety of different illnesses and many of them are fatal. Common bird diseases include:
Keeping feeders clean is essential to help prevent diseases
There is a large diversity of predators in North America that feed on birds. Many of them are opportunistic hunters and scavengers that will feed on birds whenever the chance presents itself. Others, like the sharp-shinned hawk, are specialized bird hunters.
These are just some of the various American predators that will feed on dead or living birds.
Peregrine Falcons feed on both dead and living birds
Birds can die with their eyes open or closed. A dead bird found with its eyes open didn’t necessarily die that way, however. Whether a bird's eyes are open or closed at the time of death probably has a lot to do with the cause of its death, but little research has been done on the matter.
Birds are usually not stiff at the time of death, although they do occasionally arch their necks backward or seize up, depending on the cause of death. They will go limp immediately after death, but stiffen up as rigor mortis sets in.
Rigor mortis is the technical term for the stiffening of the skeletal muscles that happens after death. This happens a little faster in birds than in mammals. Mallard ducks for example enter full rigor mortis within 1 to 2 hours, while domestic chickens and turkeys take 1 to 3 hours.
Rigor mortis sets in quicker in certain species, for example, Mallards only take one to two hours
It is difficult to say conclusively whether birds have the awareness of understanding life and death. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that points to birds mourning the loss of other birds, however. Many bird species pair up and mate for life, creating an understandably deep bond.
Some birds, like certain corvids, for example, have even been seen holding ‘funerals’ around the dead body of one of their own. This behavior is not well understood, however.
Our natural human emotions often lead us to draw conclusions about birds based on our own point of view. Nevertheless, birds do have well-developed brains which certainly seem to be equipped for experiencing emotions.
Brighten up your inbox with our exclusive newsletter, enjoyed by thousands of people from around the world.
© 2023 - Birdfact. All rights reserved. No part of this site may be reproduced without our written permission.