Woodpeckers That Specialize on Ants

This week we’ve been watching The Life of Birds DVD set narrated by Sir David Attenborough.  Have you ever seen the series? If you love nature you should, because it is so well done.

In one scene a rufous woodpecker from India is shown breaking open an ant nest and then busily eating ants. It piqued my curiosity, so I decided to see what else I could find out. Although I didn’t find the exact scene online to show you, I did find videos of rufous woodpeckers eating ants.

This first video is rather dark, but shows two young birds feeding on ants.

It appears that these woodpeckers from the Kerala region of India specialize on ants. Vishnudas (2008) cites an earlier worker from 1912 who found 2,600 ants in the stomach of a rufous woodpecker.

Although this video is shaky, it shows another woodpecker going after ants. (Makes you appreciate the quality of the footage from the Attenborough DVD.) It cuts away as the ants come rushing out of their nest.

It turns out that Rufous Woodpeckers, Micropternus brachyurus, not only use ants as their main food source, but also depend on Crematogaster ants for nesting sites. The birds work together to open up the carton nests of Crematogaster ants, and then build their own nests inside.

In his paper, Vishnudas also reports that several other species of birds follow the rufous woodpeckers and feed on the escaping ants when the rufous woodpeckers tear ant nests open.

In North America, there are woodpeckers specialize on ants, as well.

Northern flickers probably eat the most ants. They spend much of their time feeding on the ground around anthills. One flicker was found to have 5,000 ants in its stomach.

Doesn’t it look like the flicker is trying to dig out larvae and pupae rather than workers?

Pileated woodpeckers often cut slots into tree trunks or logs to get at carpenter ant nests inside. The woodpeckers will continue to return to the same opening over time, picking off ants that peer through the opening or that rush out to protect the nest.

It is fascinating to find out about these birds that are so dependent on ants for survival.

Have you seen any of the Attenborough series?

Vishnudas, C. K. 2008. Crematogaster ants in shaded coffee plantations: a critical food source for Rufous Woodpecker Micropternus brachyurus and other forest birds. Indian Birds. 4:9-11. (Available from Google Docs as a free .pdf)

The The Life of Birds  DVD set:

The Life of Birds  book by David Attenborough

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4 Replies to “Woodpeckers That Specialize on Ants”

  1. Excellent series, as is just about anything Attenborough has been involved in.

    By the way, though many predators avoid them (hence ant mimcry) some lizards specialize on them. I once ran into a herpetologist studying earless lizards (Cophosaurus) out your way. He had studied stomach contents and found them packed full of some of the most vial ants avaialble, Crematogaster & Liometopum. He said the smell of the defensive secretions of these cirtters, mixed with digestive fluids of the lizards, was (paraphrased) memorable. And of course, there are the horned lizards (Phrynosoma) that specialize on eating harvester ants, and whose stomach mucosas are permeated with stings of their quarry!

  2. And just thought of this. Here in the Midwest prairielands, I often see flickers digging into Formica mounds out on the prairies, after they’re burned off in winter. Then the birds add insult to injury by leaving ant-part filled droppings right on top of the mounds!

  3. I appreciate the feedback. I have been half thinking of creating a list of things that eat ants to put on the website. Does anyone think that might be of interest?

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