Force-fed Kestrels in Ancient Egypt?

Earlier this month researchers from the American University in Cairo, Stellenbosch University and the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies announced the results of an autopsy of a bird, mummified as part of a votive offering to the Gods. Although most such birds were gutted before being buried this particular specimen still had its stomach and gizzard contents intact and this allowed the scientists not only to determine what it was eating but also how it died.

Ancient Egypt had a long tradition of mummifying animals as part of their religious rituals. These animals represented the Gods themselves and certain species were sacred to particular deities. In the case of birds, and raptors in particular, this connection was to the sun-God Ra. Such practises took place from around 600 BC with the last such mummies dating to around 250 AD. Autopsies of sacrificial animals have been carried out before but the burial practises associated with mummification don’t usually preserve the guts and organs, so determining cause of death can be nearly impossible unless some trauma was involved that damaged the bones. One particularly enduring puzzle about this entire ancient ritual though was the sheer quantities of animals involved. Birds in particular were extremely common and it was always unclear how the Egyptians got their supplies. Were they killing wild birds, breeding them or simply finding dead wild birds and mummifying them? Now we have an answer to that question.

The Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) is found throughout the Old World. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The specimen at the heart of all this is a small raptor, probably a European Kestrel based on its size and overall shape, named SACHM 2575. It was recovered from a dig during the early Twentieth Century and had been stored at the Iziko Museum in South Africa ever since. The team took a CT scan of the bird and then viewed the results using computer software to give them a detailed picture of the animal inside its wrappings. This had the advantage of offering a clear picture of the kestrel without damaging the mummy allowing the specimen to be kept intact for posterity. They were even able to 3D print a copy of the bird’s skeleton for a more hands-on analysis. The results showed the remains of several animals in the kestrel’s stomach, including a small house mouse, the tail of which was lodged in the animal’s oesophagus. Many more bones and isolated teeth inside its stomach suggesting it had already consumed a large quantity of food that day which is unusual as kestrels are known to cache food when its plentiful and rarely overeat so excessively in the wild. The bones belonged to a sparrow as well as more mice like the one the bird had apparently choked on. Give the sheer quantity of animal bones in the stomach the researchers concluded that the kestrel had been force-fed before being asphyxiated when the mouse became lodged in its throat. They were even able to assert that the most likely time of death was late afternoon to evening because kestrels usually regurgitate a small pellet of bones and other waste early in the day. This particular animal’s stomach was still full of this debris from a full day’s eating.

This is a particularly significant find because such force-feeding implies that the bird was kept in captivity. Until now there had been no direct evidence of the Ancient Egyptians deliberately breeding any raptors for their sacrificial offerings but it would explain how they were able to source such large numbers of birds for their rituals.


Reference: Ikram, S., et al. 2015. Fatal force-feeding of Gluttonous Gagging? The death of Kestrel SACHM 2575. Journal of Archaeological Science. 63. DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2015.08.015

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