In September 2011, I posted this and other photos on my blog of an unusual event in our front garden: a praying mantis had captured and was eating an immature male Ruby-Throated Hummingbird. My original blog post begins:
This afternoon Ellen called me out to the front garden where she had spotted a dead hummingbird in the tall flowers. When I got there we realized that it was in the claws of a large green praying mantis, who appeared to be eating from the bird’s abdomen. On that female mantis’s back was a smaller brown male mantis in the process of impregnating the female, or so it seemed.
It was Ellen who found the dead hummer and mantises. There are a few more photos and more info in the original blog post, but to sum up, I had never heard of such a thing, but research quickly turned up a few more examples online.
In March of 2015 I received an email from Dr. Martin Nyffeler, Senior Lecturer in Zoology, University of Basel, Switzerland. In part, he wrote:
I am in the process of writing an extensive review paper on “Bird predation by praying mantises”. It is my intention to publish this paper in a top journal (PLOS ONE or Journal of Natural History or a similar journal). Currently I try to get photos of bird predation by mantises.
In 2013, I read an interesting article entitled “A Garden Murder Mystery” on Todd’s Blog, which includes two photos of a praying mantis eating a hummingbird.
Are you the photographer who took these pictures? If yes, I would like to ask you if I could get permission from you to use these photos in my new paper. Of course I would give you full credit for being the photographer who took the pictures.
I hope to hear from you soon. Thank you in advance for your support.
I was delighted to contribute my photos to this project, and Dr. Nyffeler has kept me apprised of his progress on getting the article published. I’m no scientist, but I have seen many of the scientific journals that publish papers on avian research while organizing the library at the Cape May Bird Observatory. In june of this year, Dr. Nyffeler wrote to say,
The manuscript (which has been written in collaboration with two professors from US universities) will be published in the June issue of the scientific magazine “Wilson Journal of Ornithology”. In this paper one of your photos will be included.
And a few days ago, he sent me a pdf of the entire article from the Wilson Journal, which is one of the oldest and most prestigious of such publications. Among the things I learned reading it are:
- Nyffeler and his co-authors found 147 incidents of small bird captures by 12 species of mantids in 13 different countries. 70% were from the US, with the most frequently captured species being Ruby-throated Hummingbird, as in our garden.
- Reports go back to 1888, but most are from 2000 on. Mantids sometimes wait on hummingbird feeders to catch birds, where they are more often seen by people, and online photos of captures have led to a sharp increase in these reports.
- Mantids have also been observed eating other small animals like frogs, lizards and mice.
- In about two-thirds of cases, mantids were seen eating the brains of captured prey, which seems to be their favorite part. (In our garden, the mantid was eating from the back end.)
- It goes the other way as well, 34 species of birds in North America feed on mantids but all are much larger than hummingbirds.
- Non-native mantids have greatly increased and become established since gardeners began releasing them to control garden pests beginning in the early 20th century, but native mantids also capture small birds. The effectiveness of mantids in this role is unclear, and probably not helpful. As mantids also prey on helpful insects like honey bees, and may pose a threat to hummingbird populations, the authors suggest it not be done in the future.
- Before I could even write this post, I was surprised to see the content of Nyffeler’s article showing up in my Facebook feed, thanks to a press release by the University of Basel picked up by online news sites like this one from the Huffington Post.
While Ellen’s and my parts are tiny, just one photo in the original article and one out of 147 reports, it’s still pretty cool. My 15 seconds of avian science fame!