Watch a Killer Whale at SeaWorld Use a Fish as Bait to Capture a Bird

The bird was hungry; the orca was not—it was just looking to play with a flying football, experts say.
Aug 28, 2015·
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

Submitted for your approval: a killer whale named Kalia, who appears to have a knack for manipulating cause and effect.

As seen in this video, created by YouTube user CetusCetus at SeaWorld San Diego, Kalia has just nabbed a fish.

But rather than gulping it down, the killer whale swims over to a row of long-legged birds hanging out at the edge of her pool. Kalia drops the fish in the shallows and waits.

For a while it’s an orca-avian standoff. The fish is tempting, but the birds know enough to be wary of the enormous set of jaws floating just a few feet away. With good reason: When one finally makes its move—darting in to grab the treat in its claw and fly off—Kalia lunges even faster and engulfs the bird midair in her mouth.

Then she swims her prize over to some other killer whales, and together they bat the carcass around for a while. It’s the cetacean equivalent of some kids circled up and playing Hacky Sack.

While the video is two years old, it is resurfacing anew online after being posted on Reddit.

So, is this bird-baiting maneuver a normal thing for a killer whale to do?

Partly, said Brad Hanson, a wildlife biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. “I’m aware that whales in captivity will bait birds in and capture them,” he said. “In the wild, they will do similar things—capture animals but not consume them, although it’s fairly rare.”

Hanson studies the predator-prey ecology of the Southern Resident killer whales, three groups of endangered orcas that live most of the year off the coast of Washington state, as well as orcas that pass through the region, which are called transient whales.

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In the Pacific Northwest, people have witnessed transient whales killing seabirds, Hanson said, as well as “an interesting equivalent by Southern Residents. Sometimes they will kill but not consume marine mammals, harbor porpoises primarily, and just push them around,” he said.

The motivation for this doesn’t seem to be hunger, said Hanson. He noted that even though salmon—the main prey of Southern Resident orcas—have been in short supply for many years, these resident whales don’t consume the porpoises they nab and kill in this manner.

“Some people are going to classify it as play,” he said, “but I’m not a behaviorist and not sure if it’s the correct term.”

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, in Washington’s San Juan Islands, was less hesitant to put the behavior down to entertainment.

“We see transients playing with birds,” he said. Orcas are “the king of beasts, so everything else is a plaything,” and birds can be particularly satisfying toys because they are interactive.

Baiting the birds with fish struck him as an adaptation to life at an aquarium, however. “Captivity is what makes that possible,” he said.