I miss my Oregon birds, some quite desperately (such as Anna’s and rufous hummingbirds, and Swainson’s thrushes), but there are compensations in the fabulous birds of Iberia. One of my favorites is the European bee-eater, which winters in Africa but nests in southern Europe and Asia. When I hear their distinctive purring call in the skies, I know spring has sprung.
All bee-eaters are gorgeous, but European bee-eaters are so beautiful that they seem like an exuberant painter’s idea of what a bird could be. Add to that their confident flight — they are insect eaters, catching prey on the wing, and are thus acrobats of the air — their large size, their mellow calls, and their fascinating life history, and you have the total package.
You can probably guess that bee-eaters love to eat bees. During courtship, a male will offer a female tasty morsels to prove his suitability as a mate. Often, the meals he feeds her are what give her the nutritional edge she needs to produce eggs.
Here is a male sorting out a bee before offering it to the female (left):
As you can imagine, eating bees is not without its dangers. Bee-eaters neutralize the sting by orienting the bee with its stinger facing outward and then whacking it on a tree branch to knock loose the sting and venom sac.
Most bee-eaters are burrow nesters, excavating burrows by breaking up the (usually hard) soil with their beaks and kicking it out behind them with their feet. Ours prefer vertical banks, which are prevalent in road cuts. There are quite a few burrows along my regular 5K hill route, so I see “my” bee-eaters every year when they arrive and happily watch them all summer long.
Which brings me to my National Geographic moment. On a walk last week, I noticed a bee-eater land in a tree about 30 meters away, holding a twig that extended several centimeters on either side of its beak. This didn’t compute, since bee-eaters don’t build nests and don’t bring any nesting material into their burrows. As a second bee-eater settled beside the first, I wondered if the twig was some sort of offering.
I stood and watched while the first bee-eater tossed its head again and again, apparently trying to reorient the twig. Then it bashed the twig on the branch it was perching on. A second later, it bashed the twig on the opposite side of its body. The other bee-eater got bored and flew to a different tree higher up the hill (the better to spot passing insects from), while the first continued to whack its twig.
Whack! Whack! Whack! Whack!
And the twig bent. In one of those “oh, of course!” moments, my vision reoriented and I realized what I was seeing. This wasn’t a twig at all, but a large grasshopper with wing covers extended out to the sides. The body was not visible, being held in the bee-eater’s beak.
Over and over, the bee-eater whacked that grasshopper into shape, knocking the wing covers back so that the whole shebang could be swallowed. Keeping in mind the size of the wing covers relative to the bird, it could only have been an Egyptian locust (Anacridium aegyptium). Males of that species grow to 55 mm (2.2 inches) while females hit 70 mm (2.8 inches). It was a huge meal for a bee-eater, but that bird was determined.
Whack! Whack! Whack! Whack!
The wing covers were eventually bent back in a delta shape, and the joints were probably nicely softened in the process. The whacking behavior also kills the prey so it won’t struggle while being eaten. With a meal of this size and strength, struggling would have been a real issue, but the bee-eater took care of that quite handily. At last it tilted its head back and swallowed — once, twice, three times, until the locust went all the way down.
I was impressed. That would be like me folding a large pizza several times and then shoving the whole thing down my throat. I probably wouldn’t be able to walk afterward. The bee-eater, however, gracefully took flight and joined its buddy up in the higher tree. They chattered together and I resumed my walk, happy to have lucked into that Nat Geo moment. These are the sorts of things that make my whole week.