Updated: Feb 21
This is an answer that can be difficult to find. However, we found research offering some insight into this important question!
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.
How do birds choke?
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.
Documentation of birds choking
In the 1980s, 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.
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