People often send me links to stories of the Indian cow that took to eating baby chickens. The story isn’t at all new: it appeared in the press in March 2007, and at least one of the cow’s lapses into carnivory was filmed. It’s shown here (though see below). As with the epic cat fight, do NOT watch this video if you are easily disturbed or upset by scenes of animal death and suffering. I will spoil the surprise by telling you that the cute little baby chicken gets eaten alive by the big nasty cow.
The cow concerned – named Lal – lives in Chandpur, West Bengal (though: the cow in this video might not be Lal, but another one. I really don’t know. Another video, showing a far whiter, adult Indian cow – is this Lal? – is here). Lots of chickens were going missing and, naturally, it was assumed that roving dogs were to blame. Lal’s owners were thus a little surprised to see the cow sneak up to the chicken coop and to then grab and eat some of the chicks.
It’s perhaps not as well known as it should be that many ‘strict herbivores’ will eat animal matter on occasion. Sometimes this behaviour is absolutely deliberate and likely motivated by a need for calcium: antler- and bone-eating is common in deer and other hoofed mammals, and the consumption of seabird chick heads, wings and legs by island-dwelling deer and sheep is well documented (Furness 1988). Red deer Cervus elaphus that eat seabirds seem to deliberately eat the bones only, and carefully avoid ingesting the flesh. White-tailed deer Odocoileus virginianus and domestic cattle Bos taurus have been shown (thanks again to remote cameras) to consume passerine and quail nestlings and/or eggs when they discover them (Pietz & Granfors 2000, Nack & Ribic 2005, Ellis-Felege et al. 2008): this behaviour is likely opportunistic, but may well be common and widespread (it’s difficult to document since it mostly occurs at night and no evidence remains). White-tailed deer have also been seen eating fish, insects, small mammals and birds caught in mist nests: in the adjacent picture, a deer eats a rabbit (pic borrowed from the Deer & Deer Hunting forum). There are quite a few pics of deer eating small animals online, here’s a video where a White-tailed deer eats a small passerine…
On other occasions, carnivory is accidental: cattle drinking from pools sometimes ingest huge quantities of tadpoles, for example (Beebee & Griffiths 2000).
In 1945, an elephant called Chang (kept at Zurich Zoo), killed and consumed Bertha Walt in entirety, including her clothes, shoes and handbag. I always thought that this was due to starvation, but these days I’m not so sure: Chang already had a reputation for being nasty and aggressive, and after Walt’s death he attacked another elephant and killed his keeper, Hans Rietmann. We’ve covered some of this stuff before on Tet Zoo: there are also the many occasions where hippos have been seen to eat carcasses and even to catch, kill and eat birds, antelopes and other animals. And there are instances where elephants have exhumed and eaten human corpses (Spinage 1994).
Lal the cow’s behaviour might be motivated by a mineral deficiency (though the idea that Lal was a tiger in a past life was also entertained by some villagers) [adjacent screen-capture, from video above, shows cow eating a chicken]. But, as shown by the studies cited below, bird-eating in bovids and deer may actually just be a fairly normal bit of behaviour that we’re only beginning to document. I also think that individuals of herbivorous species sometimes learn ‘accidentally’ that they can kill and eat other animals, and then take to this habit as and when the opportunity arises. That is, because they can, not because they ‘need’ to. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that animals (and other organisms) likely do a lot of things simply because they can, not because their anatomy or physiology is specifically ‘suited’ to that activity.
One more thing: remember the Abolitionist Project? Someone should tell those guys that carnivores are not the only creatures that kill. Herbivores are often murderous bastards too, and ‘pure’ herbivory is apparently much rarer than we used to think.
I was hoping to get through a lot more stuff before stopping for Christmas, but workload is so heavy right now that I don’t think this is gonna happen. Haven’t even had time to produce a Tet Zoo-themed Christmas card… Well, I’ll say happy Christmas now, best wishes for 2011!
For previous articles on carnivory and/or animal killing in herbivores, see…
- Tet Zoo picture of the day # 11 (carrion eating in ceratopsian dinosaurs)
- Duiker, rhymes with biker
- Hippos are photographed biting a crocodile to death
Refs – –
Beebee, T. & Griffiths, R. 2000. Amphibians and Reptiles. HarperCollins, London.
Ellis-Felege, S. N., Burnam, J. S., Palmer, W. E., Sisson, D. C., Wellendorf, S. D., Thornton, R. P., Stribling, H. L. & Carroll, J. P. 2008. Cameras identify White-tailed deer depredating Northern bobwhite nests. Southeastern Naturalist 7, 562-564.
Furness, R. W. 1988. Predation on ground-nesting seabirds by island populations of red deer Cervus elaphus and sheep Ovis. Journal of Zoology 216, 565-573.
Nack, J. L. & Ribic, C. A. 2005. Apparent predation by cattle at grassland bird nests. The Wilson Bulletin 117, 56-62.
PIETZ, P., & GRANFORS, D. (2000). White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) Predation on Grassland Songbird Nestlings The American Midland Naturalist, 144 (2) DOI: 10.1674/0003-0031(2000)144[0419:WTDOVP]2.0.CO;2
Spinage, C. A. 1994. Elephants. T & A D Poyser, London.