A Bird’s-Eye View of Fishing

FISHERS​—whether humans or birds—​have three fundamental problems to solve: (1) find fish, (2) approach them, and (3) capture them.

A typical method of early Egyptian fishermen was to use a harpoon to spear fish. These fishermen employed the same basic techniques that some birds of the heron family used long before human competitors appeared on the scene.

The gray heron, a bird common in Egypt’s Nile delta, uses its sharp beak like a lance to spear fish. It can even spear two different fish at the same time, and it may eat over a pound (0.5 kg) of fish a day. The heron might be said to surpass human fishermen in guile.

Generally, herons specialize in stalking and striking their prey. A heron will wade slowly through shallow water or sometimes just stay totally still with its beak at the ready. When a fish comes within striking distance, the heron plunges its head into the water and captures the fish with its beak. Patience is usually the key to the bird’s success.

Fishing With Bait

According to the book The Life of Birds, green-backed herons in Japan seem to imitate people who feed bread to fish found in ornamental lakes. Those ingenious birds use pieces of bread to lure fish to within easy reach.

Egrets in the Caribbean also use bread to lure fish. Egrets even catch fish without any bait at all, using their yellow feet. Standing in shallow water on one foot, they wag their other foot in the water to attract the attention of inquisitive fish.

Grab-and-Go Techniques

Birds do their fishing in various ways. Fish eagles, often called osprey, could best be described as grab-and-go fishers. They fly above the water, keeping a lookout for any fish swimming near the surface. Once one is spotted,  they fold their wings and dive steeply toward the water, realigning their swoop as necessary before snatching the fish with their talons. This technique requires perfect timing and excellent eyesight.

Sometimes the African fish eagle discovers that the fish it has captured with its talons is too heavy to lift. The fish may weigh up to six pounds (2.7 kg)! What does the eagle do then? Naturalists have observed some solving the problem by paddling to shore using their wings!

Diving for Dinner

Gannets and boobies also dive for fish, but they use a vertical dive. Small flocks fly together searching for shoals of fish that swim near the surface. The silvery bodies of these fish change the color of the sea from dark blue to pale green when viewed from above. This telltale patch of green sets gannets and boobies in motion.

After locating a shoal of fish, gannets plunge like arrows into the water at speeds of up to 60 miles (96.56 km) an hour. The birds create a spectacle one might compare to an Olympic diving competition. Other flocks soon notice the activity and quickly arrive at the spot to share in the feast.

Unlike herons, boobies and gannets do not spear the fish when their head enters the water. The force of their dive carries the birds to a depth of several feet. Then, as they swim to the surface, they catch the fish and swallow it whole.

Terns are also proficient divers, but they swoop and hover much closer to the water. The Handbook of the Birds of the World explains that rather than dive-bombing as boobies and gannets do, terns depend on “skill, grace and agility in flight.” They will scoop a fish from the surface. Only briefly, on occasion, do they pursue a fish under water.

Fishing as a Team

Pelicans may look ungainly because of their huge beaks, but they are accomplished fliers and fishermen. Brown pelicans usually dive for their dinner, and they may also snatch fish from local fishermen as they haul in their nets. But pelicans really excel at collective fishing.

By nature, pelicans are gregarious. A remarkable trait is their habit of coordinating fishing efforts. Typically, a flock of a dozen birds alight on the water and form a semicircle. Swimming slowly, they herd a shoal of fish into a convenient shallow area. As they do, they all open their wings and submerge their heads in unison, gulping fish into their beaks.

Of course, like any human fishers, birds often fail in their attempts. But their success rate is generally much higher than that of their human competitors.

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African fish eagle

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Gray heron

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Northern gannets

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Common tern

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Australian pelicans