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What are fishing cats and why are they raiding bird nests in the treetops?

In a surprising discovery, South Asian fishing cats have been caught on camera raiding bird nests in tall trees.

According to experts from the University of Dhaka, this is the first time that this rare and highly unusual behavior has been observed.

The cats were captured on motion cameras set up in tree canopies across northeast Bangladesh.

This observation not only adds a new dimension to our understanding of these elusive cats but also holds significant implications for their conservation.

Unexpected footage

Professor Muntasir Akash and his team analyzed approximately 282 days of footage from unbaited passive infrared cameras.

The researchers discovered 19 instances of nocturnal predation by fishing cats (Prionailurus viverrinus) on bird colonies, a behavior never documented before in such an environment. 

One striking image captured a fishing cat in the act of biting the neck of a little cormorant chick in a nest high in an 8m-tall Indian Oak tree.

“That is a pretty high tree for a fishing cat,” said Professor Akash, expressing his surprise.

Fishing cats have dual features 

Fishing cats are known for their aquatic adaptations, including water-resistant fur, semi-retractile claws, and partially webbed forepaws, which aid in hunting their primary prey, river fish.

However, despite their specialized fish-eating diet, they retain many typical feline features. 

“Their dentition, except for the large premolars to grip any slippery prey, is of general felid structure,” said Professor Akash. “And their semi-webbed forepaws are no more webbed than those of a bobcat.”

The feline features retained by fishing cats may assist in their survival during the monsoon season when their regular foraging habitats are flooded, making fishing challenging or impossible. 

The ability to hunt birds in tall trees could provide an alternative food source and shelter during the rainy season.

Implications and fishing cat conservation

These beautiful animals, unfortunately, face significant threats from humans. These adept hunters are often driven away from fertile fishing areas and are subject to hunting due to perceived dangers or competition for food. 

“Monitoring of media reports on human-fishing cat conflicts suggests that a fresh conflict is happening in the country every two weeks,” noted Professor Akash.

“Conservation efforts targeting fishing cats should thus be prioritized and all options for effective mitigation scientifically assessed.”

The destruction of wetlands, essential habitats for these cats, poses an additional threat.

The species is currently listed as “vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species. 

The discovery that fishing cats depend on wetland bird colonies, which are themselves threatened by hunting and tree felling, underscores the interconnectedness of these ecosystems. 

Professor Akash suggests that maintaining stable wetland bird colonies might benefit not only the wetlands and fishing cats but also the local communities that rely on these ecosystems.

South Asian fishing cats 

The South Asian fishing cat is a fascinating and unique species native to the wetlands of South Asia. This medium-sized wild cat is notably adept at swimming, which is unusual among felines. 


Fishing cats have a strong association with watery environments like swamps, marshes, and mangrove forests. They are found in countries like India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh. 

Their fur is a greyish color with distinctive dark spots and stripes, an adaptation that helps them blend into their watery habitat.


Their webbed feet are a significant adaptation that aids in swimming, and they are known to dive into water to catch fish, their primary diet. Fishing cats also consume other aquatic animals and some small terrestrial prey.


The fishing cat exhibits nocturnal behavior, meaning they are primarily active during the night. They are solitary animals, coming together only during the mating season.

Females give birth to litters of around two to three kittens.


Unfortunately, fishing cats are facing several threats that have put them on the endangered species list. Habitat destruction due to urbanization, pollution, and the draining of wetlands for agriculture are significant factors. 

Conservation efforts are in place to protect their habitats and promote awareness of their ecological importance. 

The study is published in the journal Mammalia.


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