Pretty much what it says on the tin, folks. Although, the weasel is not so much riding the bird as it is, probably, trying to kill and eat it. In any case, the photo is amazing. And while we're no photo-manipulation experts, we're inclined to say it's real.
Photographer Martin Le-May told ITV News he was on a walk with his wife when he heard the "distressed squawking" of a woodpecker:
...I saw that flash of green. So hurriedly I pointed out to Ann the bird and it settled into the grass behind a couple of small silver birch trees. Both of us trained our binoculars and it occurred that the woodpecker was unnaturally hopping about like it was treading on a hot surface. Lots of wing flapping showing that gloriously yellow/white colour interspersed with the flash of red head feathers. Just after I switched from my binoculars to my camera the bird flew across us and slightly in our direction; suddenly it was obvious it had a small mammal on its back and this was a struggle for life.
The woodpecker landed in front of us and I feared the worst. I guess though our presence, maybe 25 metres away, momentarily distracted the weasel. The woodpecker seized the opportunity and flew up and away into some bushes away to our left. Quickly the bird gathered its self respect and flew up into the trees and away from our sight.
We've reached out to Le-May for additional comment and clarification and will update when we hear back. It's possible the photos (there are other, blurry shots at ITV) are faked, but we've found plenty of evidence that weasels like to prey on birds. Here, for instance, is video of a magpie losing a fight with a weasel (fair warning: this video contains footage of magpie demise):
- This book on the natural history of weasels clearly states that weasels eat birds.
- This article in the Journal of Animal Ecology, which looks at predation by weasels of breeding tits, cites several studies in support of the claim that weasels are "a regular and sometimes highly destructive predator of eggs, young, and occasionally... parent birds."
- In Canada, weasels are known to prey on woodpeckers when the latter are trying to nest.
- Weasels are also included in this long list of predators of central-European woodpeckers.
- And here's a study on how nesting woodpeckers are known to defend themselves from a list of 23 predators, including weasels, in both Europe and North America. Defense tactics include both passive and active maneuvers, including attacking, blocking the nest entrance, picking safe spots, and timing when they breed.
And for what it's worth, green woodpeckers like the one in Le-May's photograph are typically terrestrial, feeding on ants on the ground and foraging in short grass or bare soil. We wouldn't be surprised if this made them easy targets for hungry and ambitious weasels.
All this is to say: We really want this photo to be real. Based on the scientific literature, we'd say it's pretty damn plausible it's legitimate.
Additional reporting by Mika McKinnon.