Kleptoparasitism at Westbury Manor

Over the weekend Will and I visited another local museum: this time Westbury Manor Museum, Fareham (Hampshire, England). I particularly liked the several bird paintings they have on display, one of which - the one you can see here - was duplicated and enlarged and used as the back-drop to a case of stuffed local birds.


Despite strenuous efforts I've failed to find out who the artist was: the website gives no information, and if there was labelling I somehow missed it. It's not Charles Tunnicliffe by the way [UPDATE (added January 2010): the artist is Dan Powell. See comment 12 below].

Anyway, the painting you can see above was my favourite. It shows an Arctic skua Stercorarius parasiticus (or Parasitic jaeger if you're North American) deftly manoeuvring in flight to grab a Sandwich tern Thalasseus sandvicensis; as a result of this harassment, the tern is dropping the fish it was carrying. The term 'kleptoparasitism' - used yesterday in connection with Razorbills - might have been new to some of you. Here it is in action: it refers to what you might also call piracy, essentially the habit of harassing other birds to release their catches such that you - the kleptoparasite - reap the rewards. Or, as Nelson (1980) said, 'It is an active pursuit aimed at compelling the victim to drop or disgorge its catch' (p. 52). Skuas and frigatebirds are specialised kleptoparasites that gain most of their food this way (as much as 90% in Arctic skuas), but it is also practised by some gulls and terns. Indeed kleptoparasitism is so prevalent in some seabird communities that the behaviour and/or appearance of various species seems to have become modified such that they might avoid it. We looked at this previously when discussing boobies. Enough - must stop..

Incidentally, the Hayling Island Jungle cat was on display at Westbury Manor Museum once. I guess it did a local tour. Coming next: RHYNCHOSAURS! Probably: I currently have no internet access at home, so have to go on a long trek every time I need to check my emails, or post here. Sigh.

Ref - -

Nelson, B. 1980. Seabirds: Their Biology and Ecology. Hamlyn, London.

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Very beautiful painting!

I never saw skua turning upside down, but no doubt this can happen.

Any more fans of wildlife illustration here?

I've always found kleptoparasitism interesting (despite not knowing the scientific term till I followed this blog), ever since watching the greater black backed gulls chase the puffins in the 'trials of life' series.
When you mention some species having modified there behaviour are you refering to petrels flying in at night or something else?


ever since watching the greater black backed gulls chase the puffins in the 'trials of life' series

Actually, unless memory completely fails me, I'm pretty sure those gull-puffin scenes showed pure predation, not kleptoparasitism (if you mean the David Attenborough series).


It's not Charles Tunnicliffe by the way.

It certainly looks like his work, though.

It looks to me more like a Keith Shackleton painting than a Tunnicliffe. But there are hundreds of competent bird painters around who could have done it.

I've seen australian pelicans practice kleptoparisitism on juvenile Homo sapiens. It happened at Monkey Mia, that famous place in Shark Bay where wild dolphins come inshore to be fed by people. Way back in the 80's before it became tightly regulated you could buy a bucket of fish to feed the dolphins from a small caravan on the beach. These fish were sold in little green plastic buckets. The pelicans learnt that these buckets had food in them. Of course parents would often given the buckets to the little kids for them to feed the dolphins. The pelicans would charge any human with a green bucket that was four foot or less in height. Having a pelican charge at you, mouth agape, is quite a frightening experience for a little kid and they would naturally drop the bucket in terror and run for the safety of mum or dad. The pelican meanwhile cleaned up on the discarded fish.

"Stuffed"? You just brought a tear to the eye of a legion of ... whatever the hell they call themselves.

By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 27 Jan 2009 #permalink

Dartain: I rememeber the gulls eating the puffins (much to my shock) but Im sure they start out by harassing them for fish. Or that could be where they start out eating the chicks and Im getting confused with the frigate bird vs booby (or was it skua vs tern?) Oh well its another good excuse to watch David Attenbourough. On the subject of Sir David, have you seen those pesky creationist have been pestering him again about not crediting God and now because hes promoting Darwin - they've crossed the line now....

Adam - Pelicans do indeed partake in a spot of kleptoparisitism. In St. James Park (London) there are 4 pelicans in the 'wildfowl' collection and remember watching a toddler being given a sausage roll and then wandering to close to the pelican, which swiftly removed the roll from his hands! Mind you these pelicans have been known to eat pigeons and are reported to have eaten grey squirrels and mallards, so perhaps the toddler should be grateful only his sausage roll was eaten!

A minor ornthological irony for patriotic Americans is the fact that Haliaeetus leucocephalus, in addition to doing a good deal of scavenging, goes in for a bit of kleptoparasitism, harrassing ospreys into dropping their freshly caught fish. ... Perhaps part of the reason why those Native American groups who went in for ceremonial eagle-feather headdresses preferred feathers from Aquila chrysaetos: they thought it a "nobler" bird.
Apparently Benjamin Franklin thought any sort of eagle too militaristic to adopt as a national symbol: he proposed Meleagris gallopavo for national bird!

By Allen Hazen (not verified) on 27 Jan 2009 #permalink

Neil, if I recall correctly, there were two separate scenes featuring seabirds in that particular Trials of Life episode (the one about predation). One where great black-backed gulls chase and kill puffins, and another where great skuas chase and kill kittiwakes.

On the subject of Sir David, have you seen those pesky creationist have been pestering him again about not crediting God and now because hes promoting Darwin - they've crossed the line now....

Yes, I saw that. Disgusting. How low can those freakin' creationists go?

For another perfect example of kleptoparacitism, just watch small homo sapiens interacting with golden mantled ground squirrels or least chipmunks (one would think purchasing would be cheaper) at just about any National Park in the Western U.S. A cookie in the hand of a child will not last long if a smart rodent is around.

Thanks for the very kind comments about the Artwork. The paintings were created in 1989 - 90, for the Museum. The idea being to reflect some of Fareham's hidden wildlife. I appreciate that this response is a year late, but I was Googling Tunnicliffe and came across this site. Dan Powell

By Dan Powell (not verified) on 11 Jan 2010 #permalink