Do birds play dead in a crisis?


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Wildlife questions

Do birds play dead in a crisis?

  • I was in my kitchen this morning when there was this almighty bang on the patio door glass. A blackbird (hen, it later turned out to be) had hit the glass with some force with a cat, one of the neighbours' cats, chasing it. Obviously, the cat had surprised the bird and the bird had taken off, but was momentarily disoriented, which caused it to veer off and fly straight into the door. The bird then lay upon the ground and the cat went for it. However, seconds later, the cat seemed to lose interest as the bird appeared lifeless by then.

    A couple of minutes later I looked again and the 'dead' bird was lying on the lawn. I was already making plans to deal with its disposal.

    But then, suddenly, another three minutes later *another* blackbird flew down and strutted around near the 'dead' bird, whereupon the corpse as if by magic jumped up, shook itself a bit and flew off.

    It really looked as if the bird knew that by playing dead, the cat would wander off. Okay, so it might have been stunned by the strike against the glass, I suppose.


  • I've not heard of birds playing dead. Well-camouflaged birds like Snipe might sit very still and tight in a hiding place until the last possible moment when a predator is around, but once they know they've definitely been seen they will 'fly for it'. It doesn't really make sense that playing-dead behaviour would evolve in birds as a means to escape non-flying predators - I suspect the Blackbird was momentarily stunned, and this worked in its favour by pure luck.

  • Totally agree with Aiki! The blackbird was stunned (knocked itself out).... A lucky survivor on both counts!


    Actually, playing dead is a common trick employed by birds (and other prey species) to avoid being attacked.  If they feel threatened by a predator they will play dead and lay motionless, particularly if they feel that the predator responds to movement. Some predatory birds target their prey by movement and so by becoming motionless thay are harder to spot. Cats also love to attack small moving things - "where's the fun in attacking something if i can't play with it?" - so this method is very effective for birds vs cats - unfortunately, not all birds are adept enough at this and the panicked flight of adults and fledglings alike only serves to excite cats more!

    Feigning injury is also a common technique employed by adult birds to distract predators from nests - they'll fly a short way from the nest, with a wing hanging down, moving in an awkward way, to draw the predator away before (hopefully) managing to escape themselves....

  • Not moving in the hope of not being noticed is not the same as playing dead though :) It sounds like this Blackbird was sprawled on the ground in full view of the cat, and was incredibly lucky to get away with it - cats will spend ages waiting, watching and prodding at something that DID move a moment ago!

  • No it's not the same - but a bird dropped by a predator will lay motionless where dropped and wait for danger to pass - as happened here the cat went away uninterested and the bird took off a few moments later -  if you pick up some species of bird they'll often go limp/play dead, it's a well-documented behaviour.

    Cats will stalk something that is moving, or did move a moment ago - that's how they predate, they'll wait for it to move and pounce - but they expect things to move and they react to it. A prey item or toy that stops moving is often ignored by cats, as their natural instinct is to prey by movement and quick reactions.

  • Is that 'going limp' an actual adaptive playing-dead behaviour, though (of the kind seen in certain reptiles, amphibians and mammals) or the physical effects of shock, fear and possibly trauma from the predator's bite? Probably impossible to tell. I can see that going limp could have a slight advantage in a last-ditch scenario, but I disagree that cats usually ignore a motionless prey item. For a start, they will often want to eat it!

    ETA - by 'playing dead' I am meaning the animal assumes a distinctive open-mouthed 'I have just died in agony' posture, of the kind seen in a possum that's playing possum :)

    The Blackbird in this case had flown hard into a window rather than being caught by the cat, so I think the 'stunned' hypothesis is a good one :)

  • Hi LittleTyke

    My cat once brought a snipe home (from where I have no idea).  The bird looked as if the cat had not done any harm to the bird but the bird displayed the same actions as your blackbird. I got a shoe box and place the bird in the box and in no time he was up and gone. I have to admit I was so happy to this happen.

    Not sure if this was shock or if he was playing dead but it worked....


  • Totally agree. "where's the fun in attacking something if i can't play with it?" was exactly how the cat reacted. It had been chasing the bird moments before, the bird hit the glass and fell to the ground motionless, the cat ran up to the bird and sniffed it a bit, then just walked off, as if to say, "Foiled, darn it!"

    I also think the bird may well have been stunned, as it was a hell of a whack, but nevertheless the way it suddenly sprang back to life again, especially at the appearance of another blackbird, seemed to suggest that it was also aware of the car standing over it.

  • Hi all

    Whether it was stunned or actually 'playing dead' knowingly, this blackbird was very lucky to get away with it without any apparent long-term injury. If it was a cat it would have lost one of it's nine lives for sure :-)

    Best wishes Chris

  • LittleTyke

    ... it was also aware of the car standing over it.

    Now there's a car involved?! (only joking!)

    Been thinking about this a lot, as it's an interesting evolutionary puzzle. My understanding of 'playing dead' was something like this:

    (not my photo)

    It's adaptive because it creates the impression that the snake (or whatever) has suddenly dropped dead from causes other than predation, therefore should not be eaten as it may be diseased. If you can't fly and the predator is outrunning you or has you cornered, it's worth a try. But if the snake (or whatever) does this AFTER the predator has had a good bite and shake of it, then it's just going to seem as though the predator has killed it. Which is, after all, exactly what the predator intends, and means it's eating time.

    A fit and healthy bird escaping a cat, though, would have to be in a very odd situation for playing dead BEFORE the cat has laid a claw on it to be a good idea - sure, the cat might lose interest if the bird is lucky, but flying away is a much surer way to guarantee safety.

    I've always had cats. My current cat lives indoors so doesn't eat any wildlife (therein lies another thread) but my experiences with other cats is that they very rarely leave prey unattended once caught, at least not until it's thoroughly mauled and often partly eaten. Kittens will run off with a toy growling possessively, but adult cats only do this with actual prey. Their behaviour with a prey item is completely different to how they behave with a non-edible toy. Though perhaps birds are learning to 'play dead' as an adaptation to encounters with overfed domestic moggies which don't want to eat their kills!

  • What a fascinating discussion!

    It just shows how clever nature can be.

    I'm so glad your blackbird was lucky and came to little harm.

  • I have seen a young Red Kite play dead at quite close quarters. They were ringing them at Gateshead and when handled just "died" then recovered and flew off. It must make ringing a lot easier with this particular species

  • I picked up a crow today - it was flapping about in the road and nearly getting run over and seemed not to be able to fly. I put it in a large laundry bag and placed next to me in my car while I contacted the vet and rspca for advice. It sat there for a while but after a period of time laid on its side with its legs slightly curled - completely still but with its eyes still open and blinking. After a while longer it got back up on its legs, put its head under its wing and went to sleep! So I think it was playing dead.

    The vet I took it to reckoned it was just young and we replaced it near the same place but off the road behind a wall.

  • I agree that the blackbird was probably stunned. I've never seen or heard of them playing dead. Crows on the other hand...

    During my crow rehab experience I've often seen the other half pick up a crow for  inspection, medication, claw trim etc and place the crow, carefully, "dead" on its side in a carrier. One on occasion he had a carrier full of "dead" crows, laying on their sides but with beady eyes fixed on him! :D