Can birds choke? - Flocking Mailbag

Updated: Oct 11

For our first 'Flocking Mailbag,' we answer three great questions about birds choking, the feathers of birds, and how long into the breeding season will birds sing?

Great Blue Heron swallowing a large fish

Can birds choke on something they ate?

This is a question that many people have, but they may not find many answers when searching Google, Bing, or AskJeeves (seriously, what happened to Jeeves?!). When we think of humans choking, it is often from not chewing food enough, taking too large of a bite, or possibly a child putting something into their mouth that does not belong.

What causes the actual choke? Usually, the food as it enters a human throat finds a way to bypass the epiglottis, which is just a fancy word for your tracheal trapdoor. The food, now inside of your trachea (air tube), obstructs airflow to your mouth and nose. Why does this happen? Often, for adults at least, they are using their airway while swallowing a large piece of food. That means they were talking, breathing, laughing, etc., and their epiglottis opened as the food neared the entrance of the trachea.

Birds, on the other hand, do not typically choke in the same fashion as humans. In fact, it is rare to find evidence of birds choking to death. However, there are documented cases showing a bird likely choked to death and how the choke happened.

Birds do not have an epiglottis that covers their trachea. While it may seem this alone could cause a bird to need the 'Heron Heimlich,' the lack of an epiglottis is NOT the reason some birds choke to death while eating. In fact, a bird's tongue shape and grooved mouth aid in food movement past the tracheal opening, or glottis, and into the esophagus (food tube). Food passing into the trachea, the cause of most chokings in humans, is not the answer.

Without the teeth and chewing muscles that humans have, birds often swallow their food whole. Some birds may rip apart their prey or they may break up a seed, but many species such as herons and pelicans are frequently reliant on the ol' tip your head back and down the hatch, method. Some seedeating birds also use this method, and they depend on small stones in their crop to aid in digestion. Wait, could we be near the cause of bird 'choking.' Yes.

In the 1980's, in California, a pair of Great Blue Herons were found freshly deceased with lamprey lodged in their esophagus. Yes, the fish were lodged in the esophagus and not found directly obstructing the airway. So, what happened? Upon measuring the diameter of the esophagus and the lamprey, the researchers found the fish were small enough to continue passing through the esophagus. However, the lamprey quite long and still quite wide at the tail end of their bodies. After investigating all other potential harm the lamprey could have inflicted to the herons, the researchers concluded that the diameter of the lamprey, combined with their length, likely forced the glottis closed for a long enough time that the Great Blue Herons could not breathe and died of asphyxiation. They had choked to death, in their anatomically unique fashion.

There are other examples of birds "choking" to death, from captive parrots that choke on regurgitation, to juvenile seabirds choking on snake pipefish. However, each of those situations is rather unique. The herons are the best example of a bird choking on food that was too large and took too long to move past their breathing apparatus. Could it happen to birds eating seeds at a feeder? It seems unlikely but possible.

Can birds choke to death? Yes. Will they? Probably not.

How many different kinds of feathers are there on the average songbird?

Feathers can show a variety of shapes, like these wing feathers from a Snowy Owl.

Let me start by saying, I do not think I could ever call any songbird average without creating a storm of anger and discord. However, for answering this question, I will provide an answer.

When we think of how to classify feathers, we should consider four pieces:

  • Development

  • Adaptation

  • Mechanism

  • Evolution

Applying these critical ideas gives us seven broad categories of feathers.

  1. Remiges

  2. flight feathers found in the wing

  3. typically asymmetrical

  4. attach to bone

  5. stiff and large

  6. Rectrices

  7. flight feathers found in the tail

  8. connected to each other by ligaments

  9. innermost two tailfeathers attach to bone

  10. can be asymmetrical or symmetrical

  11. Contour

  12. cover most of the surface of a bird

  13. streamline a birds body for flight and/or swimming

  14. variety of uses including communication and thermoregulation

  15. Down

  16. soft and fluffy

  17. act as insulators

  18. Semiplume

  19. likely complement the insulating function of down feathers

  20. Bristle

  21. highly specialized

  22. usually found on the bird's head

  23. often found in areas that protect the eye

  24. may appear to look like eyelashes or whiskers

  25. Filoplume

  26. smallest feathers

  27. monitor movement within adjacent feathers

  28. consider these like sensors in your vehicle

That should answer the question, but perhaps you are wondering about other feathers that do not seem to fit in any category. Often, feathers that are very unique to certain species are considered highly specialized or modified for distinct uses. For example, the "nuptial plumes" on herons and egrets are highly modified contour feathers.

There are also names given to feather tracts on the body of the bird. These are not feather types but instead are often contour feathers with a different location or purpose.

Tail feathers, or rectrices, from an American Redstart

Do Male Birds Continue to Sing into Summer?

I had to clip this question just a bit. The original question was "Do male birds continue to sing through the summer, or just the ones that weren't lucky enough to find a mate?" I love this question, as birdsong is such a unique part of birdwatching!

Birdsong is often used by birds for mate attraction and territorial defense. There are likely other uses for birdsong, but science is still learning about the complexity of the sounds from the bird world. Before we answer the question, we need to address a myth that needs some serious busting. Males are NOT the only singers in the bird world. Females can also have beautiful, complex songs that can rival that of their male counterparts.

With all of this newfound information, let's address the question.

While attracting a mate may be an insignificant factor after females have begun nesting, males and females will defend their territories into fall and even winter! In fact, a migratory species like the Yellow Warbler, may stop singing in the nonbreeding season, but they will still defend their winter territories using sound! Successful males can and will continue singing late into the breeding season. How cool?!

One last interesting note. As the breeding season comes to an end, the song-control centers will SHRINK! While that may seem insignificant, that portion of the brain GROWS again at the beginning of the next breeding season. This is important for health research, as new neurons are CREATED during this process. It was long believed that adult vertebrates were incapable of creating new neurons.

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