Antbirds–Ant Tanagers–Antvireos–Antshrikes–Antpittas–Antwrens–Antthrushes? Why are so many Costa Rican bird species modified with the word ‘Ant’ in from of them?
Most people have the misconception that all of these various species of ‘Ant’ birds are consumers of…ants! This is not the case (although some birds, like the Northern Flicker woodpecker, do consume ants with gusto). These birds are called ‘Ant’ birds for another reason.
‘Ant’ birds are given this prefix not because they eat ants; but rather because they FOLLOW ants, in particular Army Ants ( most often Eciton burchellii). If you live or have visited the neo-tropics you may have had the opportunity to observe Army Ants on the move. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of these tiny marauders will sweep through an area not unlike…an army! Along their march the Army Ants attack and kill pretty much anything they encounter.
***No, they are not as fierce and aggressive as those ants in that great movie with Charlton Heston, ‘The Naked Jungle’. In that movie the ants could ‘..clean a bull down to the bones in less than an hour.’ Great movie!***
Invertebrates and even small vertebrates probably fear nothing more than being swarmed over, torn apart and ultimately eaten by Army Ants. And so, when an army of Army Ants is discovered by the beetles, crickets, worms, centipedes, lizards and even small snakes of the forest floor they do exactly what you or I would do; GET THE HELL OUTTA THERE!
And guess who takes of advantage of this Army Ant-induced mass-panic? Correct; our ‘Ant’ birds! A swarm of Army Ants creates a delicious and nutritious movable feast of beetles, crickets, etc. for the ‘Ant’ birds who hover above the swarm and simply wait for movement.
FYI: If ever you find yourself in swarm of Army Ants…do not panic; simply move out of their way. Army Ants are blind and stay in contact with their kin through a pheromone trail left by the ant in front of them. But they can bite! Also, take some time to look and listen for some bird species you rarely get the opportunity to see; the ‘Ant’ birds.
(photo courtesy of Greg Homer, taken at El Tangaral in San Vito de Coto Brus)