Spider captures a bird

Photo by Ann Harwell. Argiope spider consumes a sparrow near Wendell, NC, August 2017.

A fellow North Carolinian recently posted this amazing photo on our Facebook page (thanks for sharing!) of an Argiope spider that caught a sparrow, and I have to admit that I was quite surprised. I mean there certainly are known bird predators classified within Araneae, but local ones?! Sure, why not. We’ve already seen other local arthropods consume birds, like praying mantids, and this video shows an Argiope in Texas that caught a barn swallow. I was able to dig out a couple of older accounts of similar incidents, one involving a yellow warbler and another where a goldfinch was captured by an Argiope . This one is by Coale (1912):

In the early part of September my friend, Otto Helwig, while crossing a piece of brush land on the edge of town, flushed a Yellow Warbler, which flew against a big spider-web stretched across a bush, and became entangled with wings spread out against the web. As the bird struggled to free itself, the spider (a large black one with yellow markings) ran down the web and at once began to bind its victim, by running back and forth across its body and wings and weaving its silken strands from side to side, completely tying the bird to the web. At this point Mr. Helwig stepped up, the spider dropped into the bush, the bird was released, soon revived and flew off.

And this one is from Mackay (1929):

…Yarmouth, Cape Cod, Mass., witnessed one morning in August, 1928…

In walking across the fields in Yarmouth and crossing a dyke around the edge of a cranberry bog, his attention was aroused by the disturbed calls of a small bird. He soon located the spot and found a small bird which he called a wild canary (probably an American Goldfinch?) completely immeshed in a spider’s web, which appeared to be about twelve inches in diameter, and placed near the ground between two blueberry bushes.

This spider Mr. J. H. Emerton, the eminent authority on spiders, has identified from the description as being a female Argiope aurantia. After watching a few moments, during which time the ensnared bird’s mate was flitting around and chirping apparently much disturbed, he released the captive bird and removed what he could of the web which encircled it, and holding it in his open palm invited it to fly away, but either through fear or exhaustion it was unable to do so, and in making the attempt fell at his feet among the bushes and disappeared before he was able to recapture it. It is probable that some of the readers of this article may question the possibility of any spider indigenous in the New England States constructing a web of sufficient strength to hold even a very small bird. I coincide in this view – with the exception of this particular spider, Argiope aurantia.

Mr. Emerton has kindly shown me a specimen of a large female of this spider with a yellow and black body and long black legs, whose body is as large as the end of one’s finger. It usually spins its web near the ground between two bushes where there is rather dense undergrowth, leaving only a contracted space between them, with a sort of lane or pocket behind.

Mr. Emerton showed me photographs of such webs in place, and made the suggestion that a small bird on becoming entangled might not have sufficient space to exert its full strength to liberate itself; he also thought it unlikely that the spider would have been able to kill the bird.