Tetrapod Zoology


Another one from the annals of weird deaths. Believe it or don’t, wading birds sometimes get their toes or bill-tips caught in bivalve shells, they remain trapped, and they then drown when the tide comes in. Here is rare photographic evidence of this behaviour…


The bird is an adult American oystercatcher Haematopus palliatus [a live one is shown below, by Bear Golden Retriever, from wikipedia*], discovered on Cape Island, South Carolina, in June 1939. William Baldwin found and photographed the specimen, and later published it in The Auk (Baldwin 1946).


The bird had obviously gotten its bill tip caught between the valves of a Hardshelled clam Mercenaria mercenaria and it then drowned while caught. Scavenging crabs later removed much of the soft tissue from the neck. Baldwin (1946) reported that he’d heard of cases from local people where oystercatchers had died in similar fashion after getting their toes caught, but the bird killed ‘by’ the clam was the only case he had direct experience with. I haven’t heard of any other examples of this sort of thing and wonder if there are more out there in the literature.

* What is it with the eyes of certain waders (and pigeons) – what is that extra little blob they have anteroventral to the pupil?

Incidentally, I’ve only just learnt that the Hardshelled clam is also known as the Quahog – ha! I had no idea; this explains a lot.

For previous Tet Zoo articles on weird deaths see…

Ref – –

Baldwin, W. P. (1946). Clam catches oyster-catcher. The Auk, 63, 589-589 [page number repeated because research blogging won’t let me enter single-page papers and retain page numbering]


  1. #1 Andreas Johansson
    July 10, 2010

    Being unaware of the bird-name “oystercatcher”, I for a moment expected this to be about a human gathering oysters and getting caught by a Tridacna or something.

  2. #2 Robert
    July 10, 2010

    I know it’s not rational, but invertebrates killing vertebrates always gives me the creeps….

  3. #3 Thomas R. Holtz, Jr.
    July 10, 2010

    A mollusk killed a theropod? That just ain’t right…

  4. #4 Cameron
    July 10, 2010

    What could Platyceramus have taken down?

    Also – Darren, aren’t you familiar with Family Guy?

  5. #5 llewelly
    July 10, 2010

    What could Platyceramus have taken down?

    An azhdarchid?

  6. #6 Greg Laden
    July 10, 2010

    Very nice. I’ve been using the Oystercatcher story for decades, but did not know about that Auk piece. It’s actually pretty important.

    You’ve inspired this blog post:


  7. #7 adam f
    July 10, 2010

    A mollusk killing a theropod ought to involve an epic battle between a Tyrannosaurus rex and a giant squid.

  8. #8 Jonathan Lubin
    July 10, 2010

    Called quahog only in New England, I believe. Where I grew up on the shores of Lower New York Bay, it was just called hard-shell. But even in New England, “quahog” seems to be pronounced differently as you go eastward along the coast. In Rhode Island, kwahog; in Maine, kohaug.

  9. #9 Yale
    July 10, 2010

    Score one for the mollusks. I’m guessing the persistent struggling of the bird was a disincentive for the clam to relax its valves and allow the oystercatcher to escape, somewhat like a Chinese finger puzzle. Quahogs bring back memories of ‘chowdah’ and ‘stuffies’ – quahog mixed with breadcrumbs, chorizo, celerery, etc. and baked in the shell. Oh, I’m ready for a clam bake!

  10. #10 CS Shelton
    July 10, 2010

    Yale, you just said the magic word!

    Around here, the weirdly named mollusk is the geoduck. Not as much fun. Fairly hideous. I’ve still never tried it.

  11. #11 Jerzy
    July 10, 2010

    BTW, I saw photos of Dunlins parading with a tiny clam attached to their bills.

  12. #12 Stevo Darkly
    July 10, 2010

    A mollusk killing a theropod ought to involve an epic battle between a Tyrannosaurus rex and a giant squid.

    Oh man, I want to see that movie! Can I buy a ticket now? Right now? Please take my money!!!

  13. #13 Zach Miller
    July 11, 2010

    Interesting colors on that Oystercatcher. The ones we have here in Alaska are all black, with red rings around the eyes and a red bill. I really like them–kind of sad to know that a “lowly” clam can take one out! 🙂

  14. #14 Shan-Marie
    July 11, 2010

    #7 & 12 – You mean something like this? ;D

  15. #15 Albertonykus
    July 11, 2010

    This sounds remarkably like an old Chinese story about a sandpiper and a clam.


  16. #16 Craig Nash
    July 12, 2010

    Fascinating and backs up my experience. 10 years ago I was walking along rocks and my springer spaniel was barking madly, which was very out of character, as I got closer I saw an oystercatcher with the last .5 of a centimetre trapped in a limpit against a rock in a rock pool. the tide was almost over it and I reckoned within a minute of being drowned. I couldn’t move the limpet at all and in the end i broke off the last centimetre of the birds bottom mandible. I then took it home and fed it on a mixture of mussels and ragworm for three days. The bill seemed to have healed somewhat and I released it back on the shore and it flew off.

    Also talking about Oystercatchers being killed you may want to promote this shocking image that I took of an oystercatcher a few days ago. The perils of plastics in our oceans. http://www.flickr.com/photos/peregrinebirdphoto/4771818726/

  17. #17 farandfew
    July 16, 2010

    This reminds me of the gruesome anecdote described in Lekagul and McNeeley’s Mammals of Thailand where a hunter is killed by a pangolin.

  18. #18 Dartian
    July 16, 2010


    A mollusk killing a theropod ought to involve an epic battle between a Tyrannosaurus rex and a giant squid.

    I don’t know about squid, but octopus are known to (very) rarely catch birds. Hindwood (1964) mentions cases from Australia that include a successful attack on a crested tern Thalasseus bergii, as well as unsuccessful attacks on a silver gull Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae and a little blue penguin Eudyptula minor, respectively. And Sazima & de Almeida (2008) describe how an octopus caught and killed a brown noddy Anous stolidus.


    Hindwood, K.A. 1964. Birds caught by octopuses. The Emu 64, 69-70.

    Sazima, I. & de Almeida, L.B. 2008. The bird kraken: octopus preys on a sea bird at an oceanic island in the tropical West Atlantic. Marine Biodiversity Records 1(e47), 1-3. (PDF here.)

  19. #19 Xp
    October 4, 2010

    Regarding the spots in oystercatcher eyes, this might explain it?

    (originally found cited here.)

  20. #20 Darren Naish
    October 5, 2010

    Yeah, I was saving that discovery (only published in 2008) for a follow-up article but haven’t gotten round to finishing it.

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