While praying mantises aren’t the target visitors for a hummingbird feeder, a startling photo shows that they might come around anyway—but not for the sugar water.
Several years ago, New Mexico resident and former National Park Service ranger Tom Vaughan spotted a bizarre sight at a backyard bird feeder: a dead hummingbird in the clutches of a praying mantis, the insect feeding on the bird’s carcass.
Nibbling on one hummingbird clearly wasn’t enough for the ravenous mantis. “After this shot, the mantis dropped the bird, crawled across the underside of the plastic feeder, came up on the other side and prepared to nab another hummer,” Vaughan wrote in a June 4 Facebook comment describing the photograph.
Mantises are surprisingly ferocious insects; scientists have previously seen them attacking and feasting on a variety of hummingbird species. Although it has happened before, it is rarely caught on camera. “It was probably what we would call a lucky shot,” says Kevin McGowan, an ornithologist at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in Ithaca, NY.
The photograph is so remarkable, in fact, that it will be included in an upcoming publication about the predation of birds by praying mantises in The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, according to a statement Vaughan posted to Facebook on June 4.
McGowan notes he has seen mantises stalking hummingbird feeders before, but has never witnessed an attack. Anecdotal accounts of these insects devouring hummingbirds are brutal: Mantises have been seen impaling the chest of the bird, dangling it by its legs, or in the case of this photo, grabbing it by the skull and feeding on its head.
Other descriptions of mantises eating hummingbirds note that the insect usually starts by grabbing the bird at the neck, surprising it while it is feeding on a flower or at a feeder.
Once the bird is subdued, the mantis slowly nibbles along the neckline and keeps at it for hours until most of the flesh is gone. “They have to chew through all that fluff, so I’m not surprised they go for the head,” McGowan adds.
Hummingbirds are likely the only birds that a mantis would be able to catch: “Hummingbirds are tiny, five or six grams—less than a nickel,” McGowan says, adding that mantises are about the same size.
Only about four inches long, mantises have also been known to ambush mice, feast on lizards, and violently cannibalize members of their own species. Generally, though, their meals of choice are other smaller insects, especially pollinating insects such as bees.
In fact, McGowan says that hummingbirds’ pollinator-like knack for buzzing around and sipping nectar may well make them all the more attractive to mantises. “If you act like a bee and you’re in those places, that starts to put you at risk for getting hit by a predator,” he says.