Got blood? Great tits hunt bats

It’s not enough that blue tits once learned to open milk bottles left on British doorsteps, sipping the cream from the top. Now their relatives, great tits, have acquired a taste for blood (see here as well) hunting and killing bats in Hungary.

As the BBC reports (the link contains a video as well as a grisly photo of a half-eaten bat):

During two field seasons in the Bukk Mountains of northeastern Hungary, the researchers documented 16 cases of great tits (Parus major) hunting, killing and eating a hibernating bat in the one cave.

Pipistrelle bats (Pipistrellus pipistrellus) are about one-quarter of a great tit’s size.

The birds would fly close to the cave walls, landing frequently and often disappearing into crevices. They would either eat the bats there and then or carry them away for feeding.

When their hibernation is disturbed, the bats squeak in the audible range for humans and great tits.

The researchers speculated that the birds may have learned to listen for these squeaks – and when they recorded some and played them back, the birds responded with interest about 80% of the time.

I’m on the road today, and can’t get the original paper in Biology Letters describing the behavior, but I suspect that, like cream-stealing in blue tits, it comes from observational learning. During the lean winter months, hungry birds presumably watch — and follow — other birds committing chiropticide. But it could be genetically based and evolved. The decisive experiment would be difficult, involving hand-rearing tits in the lab and releasing them in bat caves where they could not observe other tits hunting.

At any rate, there’s something unseemly about a songbird eating a mammal. But, as Darwin pointed out with reference to ichneumon wasps, nature doesn’t care a fig about our squeamishness.

h/t: Matthew Cobb and reader Raymond, who has a thread about this over at Secular Cafe.

21 Comments

  1. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted September 9, 2009 at 7:14 am | Permalink

    I always enjoy reading about great tits.

  2. B
    Posted September 9, 2009 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    hey prof coyne — i’d really like to see you respond to fodor’s book when it comes out.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted September 9, 2009 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

      We shall see; editors move in mysterious ways . . . .

  3. Carstairs
    Posted September 9, 2009 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    Birds came from dinosaurs, who also probably had no problem snacking on the little rodentlike mammals that crawled about their feet.

  4. Posted September 9, 2009 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    And they think we worship Darwin, when clearly we worship great tits. Being bird lovers and all, of course.

    Oh come on, you (guys at least) were thinking (?) along the same lines.

    Seriously, interesting stuff. And I did notice a story a while back that said that warming didn’t threaten great tits, so they’ll be with us and providing adolescent humor for years in the future.

    Glen Davidson

    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

  5. newenglandbob
    Posted September 9, 2009 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    First link gets file not found.

  6. Anton Mates
    Posted September 9, 2009 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    At any rate, there’s something unseemly about a songbird eating a mammal.

    Shrikes and ravens beg to differ, I’m sure.

    • Carstairs
      Posted September 9, 2009 at 11:35 am | Permalink

      Just because we are mammals does not mean our kind have special No Eat Me privs on the Great Food Chain of Life.

      Besides, we all taste like chicken as they said in The Matrix.

    • Posted September 9, 2009 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

      Are shrikes and ravens songbirds?

      • Colin
        Posted September 9, 2009 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

        Yes, they are. Most commonly a songbird is a bird that belongs to the order Passeriformes. Both ravens and shrikes are in this Order. My ornithology prof used to prefer to call them perching birds though.

        Cool story.

      • Posted September 9, 2009 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

        Thanks – I’ve forgotten any taxonomy I ever knew. (Well, I do better on mammals I guess.) I don’t think much of the ravens’ song!

        Heh.

    • KP
      Posted September 9, 2009 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

      What did they all eat before the “fall” when everything was a herbivore?

      • Posted September 9, 2009 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

        Bats were actually furry, flying plants back then. They lost their chloroplasts after the vapor canopy collapsed, producing the Flood, and the spectrum of sunlight at Earth’s surface was radically altered.

    • Diego
      Posted September 9, 2009 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

      Beat me to it, Anton. I love shrikes!

  7. Marilyn
    Posted September 9, 2009 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    just because you covered with bright plumage and sing like a tit doesnt mean you are a pig. fodor was wrong: pigs do fly

  8. anthonzi
    Posted September 9, 2009 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    Did not know that mammaries could be used as weapons against vampires. Learn something new everyday I guess

  9. Posted September 9, 2009 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    When I read a story like this I immediately start wondering if the Baldwin Effect will kick in, producing obligatorily predatory great tits. There’s a scary thought!

  10. Michael K Gray
    Posted September 9, 2009 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

    Elvira invented vampire tits well before this.

  11. JefFlyingV
    Posted September 10, 2009 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    Survival does move life to do the unexpected. Reminds me of the deer that kill rabbits to get minerals from blood that can’t be obtained any other way on a British island.

  12. Janus
    Posted September 10, 2009 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    OT: Professor Coyne, when can we expect to read your reply to Robert Wright’s reply to your review of his book?

  13. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted September 13, 2009 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    What is it with great tits that makes boobs respond with interest? (o.O)


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