Killer whales like to eat fish. No surprise there — whales and fish both swim in the same waters, so the latter make for a quick and convenient meal for the former. But killer whales also like to eat birds — pelicans, cormorants, and seagulls in particular. That’s a harder snack to get, though, as the birds fly and the killer whales (most thankfully) do not. Sometimes, an orca will get lucky, and a bird will land in an opportune place. (Sometimes, that happens during a SeaWorld orca show, as seen here — caution, though, as that video is surprisingly graphic.)
And sometimes, the whales get creative.
In 2005, Michael Noonan, a professor of animal behavior at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York, was at Marineland in Ontario, Canada. (Marineland, it appears, is a terrible place if you’re one of their animals, according to an investigation by The Star.) Noonan was there to study the acoustics of the orcas — think Star Trek IV, but real (and swap in orcas for humpbacks) — and noticed something unexpected and, for that matter, non-verbal. One of the killer whales kept puking up its lunch and then diving below the water’s surface.
But the whale wasn’t sick. And there was nothing wrong with the meal of fish it kept regurgitating. Far from it, in fact. The fish were good enough to eat — as evidenced by the fact that a bird came by to eat the partially digested fish. Which was exactly the point. The orca, as Noonan discovered, realized that the birds enjoyed the easy-pickings meal floating on top of the water, and the whale had set a trap. When the bird landed to grab the food, it became food itself. The orca quickly emerged from the water hoping to snare the bird in its mouth. And this wasn’t a coincidence; when Noonan discussed what he saw with USA Today, the newspaper noted that “the same whale set the same trap again and again.” The whale had learned how to fish for birds.
Noonan returned to study the behavior and, over time, noted something even more impressive. “Within a few months, the whale’s younger half brother adopted the practice,” reported the Associated Press. “Eventually the behavior spread and now five Marineland whales supplement their diet with fresh fowl.” The other whales had learned from the one who first came up with the trick.
The “gull-baiting” (to use Noonan’s phrase) strategy isn’t unique to these orcas, though. A few years after Noonan’s discovery, a vacationer at Sea World caught another orca trying the same gambit and managed to shoot this video. Unfortunately for that whale, the birds seemed onto the ploy — they didn’t take the bait until it was safely out of harm’s reach.
From the Archives: Alone in the Ocean: The humpback whale that can’t talk to any other humpback whales.
Related: A killer whale you can swim with. It can’t eat you because its mouth doesn’t open. Unless you pop it.