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The Famous Weasel Riding a Woodpecker Photo

Dear Bird Folks,

Like everyone else in the world, I’m sure you’ve seen that crazy photo of a weasel riding on the back of a woodpecker. Most people seem to think it’s real, but I’m not so sure. What do you think?

– Tony, Attleboro, MA


I think it’s real, Tony,

It has to be real. I know people come up with fake photos and phony videos all the time, but think about it for a minute: If you wanted to shock the world with some unbelievable photograph, you’d be more likely to fudge a snapshot of cows playing Frisbee or Bigfoot wrestling with the Loch Ness Monster. Or, if you really wanted to stretch reality, you might produce a photograph of the U.S. Congress actually doing something. The idea of a weasel riding on the back of woodpecker would never enter your mind, no matter how many Long Island Ice Teas you had been sipping. This was simply a bizarre event that just happened to be to be witnessed and photographed, and that’s all. There is no need for a conspiracy theory.

In cased anyone somehow missed what Tony is talking about, here is the backstory. A few weeks ago, Martin Le-May and his wife (probably Mrs. Le-May) were doing a bit of bird watching in Hornchurch Country Park, which is just outside of London, England. Among other things, the couple was hoping to see a Green Woodpecker. The Green Woodpecker is Britain’s largest woodpecker and is a really beautiful bird, which makes it a big deal because most of Britain’s birds aren’t very exciting (kind of like the food). Not long into their walk the couple heard the woodpecker’s distinctive call. They turned around and saw a commotion in a grassy area not too far away. Looking through their binoculars (or “bins,” as the Brits call them), they saw their target bird, a Green Woodpecker. But the bird appeared to be in the middle of struggle with a small animal of some kind. Lowering his binoculars, Martin grabbed his camera in the hopes of capturing the tussle on film. (I know no one uses “film” anymore, but saying he was hoping to capture the tussle in pixels doesn’t have the same impact. Come to think of it, no one says, “tussle” any more either. It’s just so hard to keep up lately.) As Martin started shooting, the bird took to the air, with its adversary (which was later indentified as a weasel) clinging to its back. After a short flight, the bird and its passenger landed nearby and the fight continued. At some point in the conflict, the two combatants separated. Martin suspects that his presence distracted the attacker (either that or the weasel was overcome with a case of airsickness). Whatever the reason, the woodpecker used that moment to fly to nearest tree, only this time it flew alone, vowing to never pick up another hitchhiker.

When Martin posted his photo online it was met with a whole host of doubters, but Hany Farid, a professor at Dartmouth College, wasn’t one of them. The good professor, who specializes in digital forensics, found nothing fraudulent in the photo. And who’s going to argue with an Ivy League guy? Not me. Other wildlife experts also weighed in on this subject, saying that birds can carry more than we think they can, and I agree. We’ve all seen Ospreys lugging huge fish to their nests, and Great Horned Owls are regularly seen flying away with house cats (really). Then there’s the stork, a bird that can carry and deliver human babies, with very little apparent effort. One British specialist was not surprised at all by what he saw. He says weasels simply aren’t that heavy. According to him, they weigh less than a “candy bar.” I have a little problem with this one. I don’t know how much candy bars weigh in England, but have you ever seen a candy bar in this country, especially at the movie theater? A blacksmith would have trouble lifting one of those giant things.

Right now you might be wondering: Why would a weasel attack a woodpecker in the first place? Why wasn’t the woodpecker up in a tree, pecking wood? The bird in this story is a Green Woodpecker and much like our flickers, Green Woodpeckers spend much of their time on the ground searching for ants and thus could easily fall victim to terrestrial predators. Also, let’s not forget that weasels are kind of nasty (they are called “weasels’” for a reason). Not only do they hunt to survive, they also hunt because they simply like to kill stuff (just like many humans do). Quite often their prey goes uneaten. Ironically, not long after the “flying weasel” photo appeared online, other weasel photos also began to surface. One photographer witnessed one overly aggressive weasel trying to take on a heron. But in contrast to the woodpecker, the heron didn’t fly away in terror. Instead, it just grabbed the weasel in its beak, whacked it a few times, and down the hatch it went. (Unlike weasels, herons don’t like to waste food.)

I don’t doubt that the woodpecker/weasel photo is real, Tony. Weird things happen in nature all the time, but usually our cameras are not there to witness them. BTW: The entrance to the park where this whole event took place, now displays a new sign that reads: “Hornchurch Country Park, Home to the Woodpecker-riding weasel.” Move over Abbey Road and Buckingham Palace, England has a new tourist attraction. Can you imagine taking a selfie at the home of the flying weasel? Talk about a dream come true.