Life in the wild is no picnic -- unless you're a snake in a bird's nest.
As a small crowd watched, a black rat snake ate three of the seven eggs in a mallard's nest along the James River Sunday afternoon.
"Pretty cool," said Kiersen Mather, 9, of Chesterfield County after the snake finished.
The snake, which appeared to be more than 4 feet long, was first seen crawling across the shady, sandy north bank of the river's Pipeline Rapids section near Shockoe Slip.
The snake proceeded to poke its head into a well-camouflaged nest of feathers on the ground. A mother mallard hopped off the nest without a fight.
It took about 20 minutes for the snake to open its super-flexible jaws wide and swallow the egg whole. The egg was nearly as big as a chicken's.
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The skin stretched tight around the snake's head, throat and body as the serpent worked the egg toward its stomach.
The next two eggs went down more quickly.
After it finished the third egg, the snake crawled out of the nest and swam across a riverside canal to some brushy land where it would spend a few days digesting.
Scientists said such a nest raid is perfectly natural. "It happens all the time, but people don't see it that often," said James R. Vonesh, a Virginia Commonwealth University ecologist.
Black rat snakes -- one of two species that people commonly call black snakes -- typically feed on mice and other rodents.
Raccoons, skunks and other animals also eat mallard eggs. Most eggs don't survive. To compensate, mallards can nest two to four times in a season, said Bryan Watts, director of the Center for Conservation Biology, part of VCU and the College of William and Mary.
"If all the clutches hatched, we'd be sort of buried in mallards, wouldn't we?" he said.