Although fish are high in protein and nutritious, they are elusive to catch. Aside from the fact that they live in water, they are slippery and very fast. Fish have been a favourite food source for birds for thousands of years.
Birds have adapted incredibly well and used evolved techniques to help catch these elusive fish. Not all birds have evolved into fish catchers. Because there are too many birds to list, this article will look at some of the more essential techniques used to catch fish and attach a few examples of the avian species that use them.
These techniques include wading, stabbing, skimming, swooping down and grabbing, trawling, and chasing, to name a few. These feeding strategies take years to master and need patience combined with quick and decisive action. It can also help to have excellent eyesight above or below the water!
Green Heron (Butorides virescens)
- Hunting Technique – Standing Patiently in the open and waiting
The Green Herons are smallish birds as far as herons go. They stand just over 40 cm tall.
They hunt fish by standing still on the edge of still shallow water. Once they see a fish, they quickly thrust their necks forward and spear or catch it.
They are primarily nocturnal. Several herons, including the Green Heron, also place food and insects on the water’s surface to attract fish. These herons also fall into that category of birds using tools to capture their prey.
Black Heron (Egretta ardesiaca)
- Hunting Technique – Canopy Hunting
The Black Heron is a dark, medium-sized African heron that stands about 60cm tall.
This heron likes shallow water in sheltered lakes or ponds. They find a nice still area and use the “umbrella technique” by opening their wings and extending them in front. Their primaries touch the water, creating a shady area before them.
They always keep their heads tucked under the “umbrella” to see any fish entering the shaded area.
They start disturbing the mud with one foot to attract the fish. Why fish come there is unclear, whether for the safety of the shade or by being curious as to what is causing the disturbance. It could be to keep the sun’s reflections off the water for the heron. Whatever the reason, the Black Heron are certainly thriving.
They stand like this for a couple of seconds. If nothing happens, they move a few steps away and resume the “umbrella method”. They do this a few times, then stand upright to shake all feathers back in place and continue hunting.
Snowy Egret (Egretta thula)
- Hunting Technique – Stalk and Stab
The Snowy Egret is usually found in the North, Central and South America. They are one of the more elegant Egrets, just over 60 cm tall. They are almost only white, except for their yellow lores, from bill to eyes and yellow feet. They have long, pointy black bills.
They hunt diurnally, usually in the early morning or early evening. They tend to feed on tidal channels, lagoons, and tidal pools. They forage by foot-stirring and can be seen actively pursuing their prey, running, or hopping around, continually stabbing at the fish.
When the Snowy Egret is in deeper water, they will fly low over the water, with their feet touching the water, following a school of fish.
Their feet will splash the water, and when the egret spots the fish, it will move downward and grab the fish. This is fantastic to watch, so if you spot one, hang around; you will be amazed.
Yellow-billed Stork (Mycteria Ibis)
- Hunting Technique – Wade and snapping.
The Yellow-billed Storks are large wading, African storks about 1 meter tall. Their diets are mostly freshwater fish. They have very conspicuous, long yellow bills, thick at the base.
When seen alone, they will wade in shallow waters and put their open bills about two-thirds of the way into the water, creating a void in the mud or sand. The storks then start to stir the sand/mud with their feet.
Their bills are tactile, so as soon as fish are felt, they snap closed immediately. Once in the bill, the fish are manipulated with the Storks bill until they can swallow them headfirst.
The Yellow-billed Stork has been seen wading in the wake of Hippopotami and crocodiles, which churn the water behind them.
African Fish Eagle (Icthyophaga vocifer)
Hunting Technique – Swooping and grabbing.
The African Fish Eagle (Icthyophaga vocifer) has always been an iconic bird to see or hear on African safaris.
These large, beautiful eagles are just under 70 cm tall and are noticed from far away with their striking white heads and tails against the chestnut-coloured body and black wings.
They usually perch on a prominent branch above freshwater systems like dams, rivers, and lagoons. Their eyesight is incredible, so they will take to the skies when they spot a fish. The eagles will then swoop and grab them with their large, strong talons.
Their feet have rough soles to grip their fish better. They will then fly to a perch nearby and start dismantling and eating the fish.
If the fish are too heavy for them, they will drop into the water and swim to shore with their wings, still holding onto their prize.
Western Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)
Hunting Technique – Swooping and grabbing.
The Western Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) is the other bird I wish to discuss under this technique.
What another well-watched bird on the web because of their unique ability to catch fish. They can also be found on significant waterways near the sea, like lagoons, estuaries, dams, wetlands, and rivers. Their diets are exclusively fish.
The Western Ospreys are about 60 cm tall, slightly smaller than the African Fish Eagle. They are striking-looking birds, especially in flight, with their white body, dark wings and mask running through their eyes. They also have sharp, hooked beaks that can easily open up a fish in seconds.
They hunt on the wing and are very adaptable to the strong coastal winds that arrive. The slight difference between ospreys and fish eagles is that they can catch fish a bit deeper in the water. Their plumage is dense and oily so as not to waterlog the bird if they go in too deep.
They also have retractable nostrils and are the only birds other than owls with reversible outer toes. This allows them to grab their fish with two toes facing inward and two facing outward.
Once they have found a fish, they will make a steep dive, extend their claws, and stretch their wings behind them. They will get a good grip on the fish, then slowly start beating their wings to get them back out of the water.
They will manoeuvre their fish while in flight to be forward-facing and fly to the nearest perch. There, they will start consuming their fish.
African Skimmer (Rynchops flavirostris)
- Hunting Technique – Skimming.
If you can watch a skimmer hunt for its meals, take it. Mainly when they hunt at dusk. Every time, you will get the most beautiful pictures framed with beautiful African sunsets.
The skimmer is a medium-sized bird, at about 58 cm, and when you see them in flight, all you get is black on top and white underneath with the unique red downward curving bill with a yellow tip. The bill is the primary tool for hunting as their lower mandibles are longer than their upper Mandibles.
The skimmers are primarily found in lowland rivers with exposed, bare sandbanks. The waters need to be still. They would take to the air and fly (sometimes glide) just above the water’s surface with the lower mandible skimming under it at an angle of 45 degrees.
Their bills are tactile, so they rely on feeling rather than sight. Once they feel the fish, they drop their heads slightly and snap their bills closed. This action is so quick that it hardly interrupts their flight.
They would typically skim the water for nearly 100 meters, and if nothing caught, they would return and skim the same area again.
Great White Pelican (Rynchops flavirostris)
- Hunting Technique – Trawling.
Great White Pelicans are usually found in lakes, estuaries, and dams. They are about 1.5 meters long and all white. They have a bright yellow pouch in which they catch their fish. They have short, powerful, webbed feet that help propel them through the water while hunting.
These pelicans usually hunt sociably in cooperative groups. They would typically form a “U-shape” formation and try to trap a school of fish in shallower water. The fish, once trapped, would be scooped up by the pelican’s distended pouch. The pelicans would hold their heads up, drain the water, and swallow the fish.
Black Guillemots (Cepphus grylle)
- Hunting Technique – Underwater Hunting.
The Black Guillemots are medium-sized seabirds. They have black plumage with a white spot on the upper sides of their wings. They have strong coral-red feet. Even the insides of their bills are red. No mistaking this little bird.
All guillemots are incredibly strong and swift swimmers. They use their wings to swim and their feet to steer. Guillemots are known to stay underwater for minutes at a time.
They can also swim quite deeply, up to 100 meters. They dive, capture fish near the bottom between rocks, and consume them underwater. If the fish is too big, they will bring them to the surface to soften and eat.
The Emperor Penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri)
- Hunting Technique – Underwater Hunting.
The Emperor Penguin is the tallest of the penguin species, standing 100cm long.
They are a very impressive and regal-looking penguin. Their actions under the water are like that of the Black Guillemot, with one big difference. The guillemots can fly. Penguins are flightless birds.
They ease themselves into the water but are phenomenal swimmers once in. They have been known to go below 500 meters and stay underwater for over 15 minutes. Emperor Penguins can travel up to 500 km from their colonies.
The penguins have very rough tongues with backwards-facing barbs to help hold the fish they catch. They swallow all the fish they catch (up to 1.5 kg) and regurgitate them to feed their young and partners when they return.
Cape Gannets (Morus capensis)
Hunting Technique – Float, then dive.
The Cape Gannet are mostly large white seabirds with yellow heads, blue eyes, and black wingtips.
These gannets will leave and travel over 100 km over the ocean for food. They have developed two types of dives into the sea for food.
- Shallow dive – This is a gentle dive from not very high to catch baitfish that are just below the surface.
- Deep dive – This is an extraordinary feat that these gannets achieve. When sardine shoals are noticed, the gannets dive from over 30 meters high. They fold their wings back and reach up to 100 km/hr speeds. They torpedo dive 25 meters below the surface to catch these sardines. Once they have reached the depth they need, they swim with their wings, form flocks, and start feeding. They get up to 3 fish at a time using this method. Once the fish are caught, the gannets float gently back to the surface and rest for a while.
Pied Kingfisher (Ceryle rudis)
Hunting Technique – Hover and dive.
The Pied Kingfisher are a medium-sized, pied black bird with long dagger-like bills. They grow to about 25 cm tall.
Hovering and diving is exactly what these kingfishers do. They will perch for a while and spot some movement in the water. They will then fly to that area and start hovering, waiting for a better sighting.
Once they know what they see, they will plunge into the water and catch the fish. They will fly to a perching spot and start consuming the fish.
I have seen these kingfishers capture a bigger fish, take it to a perching position, and hammer it against the bark. They do this to soften the fish to make it easier to swallow.
We have looked at quite a few techniques that are used by birds that catch and eat fish. Birds can swoop down and grab fish, spear them and even swim underwater to complete this task efficiently. All these birds rely heavily on fish as their main food source.
To do this, they have managed to adapt to their environments. These adaptions have helped a lot of these species survive.
But the one thing that not one of these birds can adapt to is marine and water debris, garbage, ropes, nets, and fishing lines. These birds get entangled in many of these, and the loss of marine bird life is huge.
You can help by cleaning the beaches, river mouths, swamps, and sandbanks to give our water birds a better chance for survival.