Never eat more than you can lift

Man is the only animal that can remain on friendly terms with the victims he intends to eat until he eats them.
— Samuel Butler

A great egret (Ardea alba) perched on a log with two Texas river cooters (Pseudemys texana) sunning nearby (2009_06_21_024660)

As I processed that photo of a great egret (Ardea alba) perched on a log with a couple of Texas river cooters (Pseudemys texana), I giggled at the thought of the egret trying to munch on one of the turtles.  Obviously the size of the reptiles would prohibit that.  But the same could not be said of a small turtle I watched become breakfast for a yellow-crowned night-heron (Nyctanassa violacea).

A yellow-crowned night-heron (Nyctanassa violacea) trying to eat a small turtle (20080722_09794)

Along the bank of one of the nearby creeks, a bit of movement caught my eye.  It was the night-heron trying to eat something.  I couldn’t quite determine what was in its beak.

A yellow-crowned night-heron (Nyctanassa violacea) trying to eat a small turtle (20080722_09800)

The bird dipped it in the water, bludgeoned it against a rock, tossed it to and fro, and appeared to be resigned to not eating it since it couldn’t break it open.

A yellow-crowned night-heron (Nyctanassa violacea) trying to eat a small turtle (20080722_09812)

It was at this point that I got a better look at the food and realized it was a small turtle.  Here’s a crop of that image.

A yellow-crowned night-heron (Nyctanassa violacea) holding a small turtle in its beak (20080722_09812_c)

You can see the legs sticking out and the head hanging down, though the whole thing is covered with mud and identifying marks are obscured.  Still, it was definitely a turtle.

It seemed too large to swallow whole, and the bird had struggled with it for several minutes such that I felt certain it would give up.  After all the banging and washing, the carapace remained intact.  Unless the heron could pull the flesh from the shell by the dangling bits, it seemed breakfast would not be served this day.

But then…

A yellow-crowned night-heron (Nyctanassa violacea) swallowing a small turtle (20080722_09813)
A yellow-crowned night-heron (Nyctanassa violacea) swallowing a small turtle (20080722_09814)
A yellow-crowned night-heron (Nyctanassa violacea) swallowing a small turtle (20080722_09815)

In one swift move, down it went.  The whole turtle.  Shell and all.

After which the heron turned, took a drink of water, and proceeded to look quite satisfied.

Close-up of a yellow-crowned night-heron (Nyctanassa violacea) (20080722_09852)

It stood around for a while after that.  I’d probably need a rest, too, if I’d spent all that time and energy trying to break open breakfast only to swallow something as hard as a brick lest I be forced to give up the entire meal.

I was left to wonder how long it would take to digest the intact turtle.  And some time later, I was left to giggle at the thought of that scene as I watched the egret and its turtle companions.

12 thoughts on “Never eat more than you can lift”

  1. Wow, what a wild series of photos!

    That turtle looks like a Musk Turtle, what we used to call a Stinkpot when I was a kid. It’s shaped right, but it’s hard to tell precisely.

    Also, I love the giant red eye of that Night Heron. It almost looks fake. Fantastic!

  2. Well, I don’t know much about bird digestion, but I don’t think I’d want to park my car anywhere close to that creek in the next week. In fact, I might invest in covered parking for a few days just in case… Try explaining that one to the insurance company!

  3. LOVE it when birds swallow giant things! I had a pet duck as a teenager and she thought ice cubes were about the best thing in the world. She’d swish them around in her little kiddie pool until they were just small enough to swallow, then swallow them whole. There’d be a big lump moving down her throat just like in your images! Your photos reminded me of that and made me smile. Thanks!

    Can’t even imagine how that heron is going to get the turtle shell back out though… Yikes.

  4. @Nate: I can’t tell you how much I wanted to ID the doggone turtle. Musk turtle looked right to me as well, but the only non-mud color in any of the photos I took was red–which doesn’t help at all considering the beating that turtle was put through. I’d be showing some red too!

    @xocobra: LMAO! I hadn’t considered how the turtle shell would be passed. Ouch!

    @Morgan: You’re so right! Something like insurance against hail damage seems appropriate.

    After you and xocobra mentioned that, I looked it up because I couldn’t imagine how that was going to go through without causing damage. It seems yellow-crowned night-herons are specially adapted to eating crustaceans like crayfish; that’s their primary diet. Obviously they also indulge in turtles since they have unique stomach acid that breaks down the carapace quickly so the whole thing can be digested normally. Fascinating!

    @Chris: LOL! I can just picture the ice cube going down like that. Seems like an odd indulgence for a duck, but I guess we all have our weaknesses.

    We had pet ducks as well. I used to catch large cicadas to feed to them, and we’d all watch with both fascination and a wee bit of revulsion as the lump–still buzzing!–would slowly move down the neck into the crop. And the faint buzzing would continue for a short time longer from inside the duck. After being shocked by it the first few times, I suddenly found it highly intriguing, although probably not so much for the cicada.

  5. What exactly does happen? Would that shell stick around in the gut until it began to disintegrate, or would the bird really have to pass it? I mean, COULD the bird pass something that size? It’s not exactly streamlined for passage through a sphincter, unless herons regularly do this kind of thing and have particularly elastic nether parts! Help me out here. I need to know. Someone explain please.

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  7. Incredible. I knew they specialized in crustaceans, but I never thought about turtles! For those wondering about the, er, mechanics, Yellow-crowned Night Herons and lots of other birds regurgitate pellets of indigestible material. It doesn’t pass all the way through the digestive tract.

  8. First time I followed you here from Clive’s–and what a sight! I’d be in love with the feathers and the shape except that I can’t look away from what’s happening.

    The egret is lovely. Reminds me that once long ago I was floating on the Ashley River near Charleston and saw an egret’s mating plume falling from the sky and–magic!–caught it in my hand.

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