Clam attacks and kills oystercatcher

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]

More like this

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.

By Andreas Johansson (not verified) on 10 Jul 2010 #permalink

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

What could Platyceramus have taken down?

An azhdarchid?

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

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, âquahogâ seems to be pronounced differently as you go eastward along the coast. In Rhode Island, kwahog; in Maine, kohaug.

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!

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

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!!!

By Stevo Darkly (not verified) on 10 Jul 2010 #permalink

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! :-)

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

By Shan-Marie (not verified) on 10 Jul 2010 #permalink

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.

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

By farandfew (not verified) on 15 Jul 2010 #permalink


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.)

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