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Birds and Mosquitoes

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve

An entomologist from Michigan State University was interviewed about mosquitoes because there has been an abundant mosquito population rise recently. He said the early season drought prevented mosquito eggs from hatching. The approximate 8 inches of rain that inundated the state in a short time permitted the eggs to hatch. Subsequently, the insects have proceeded through their life cycle and are now on the wing. 

He added that the mosquitoes we are experiencing are not the one that carry EEE or West Nile virus. Those species will emerge later. That is good news for us.

The West Nile virus has greater risk for birds than us. We can protect ourselves more effectively than wildlife can by going indoors at peak mosquito activity hours, wearing light weight long sleeves and by using repellent. Birds, mammals, and even turtles must find other ways to protect themselves.

I recall watching a mosquito biting a turtle on its head. If seriously bothered, it could probably have submerged in the pond, but it was enjoying sunning itself on a log too much to dive in the water. 

I saw a mosquito was biting a nestling Eastern Phoebe on its head in a nest above the door frame at one of Gwen Frostic’s screened in art shelters, where she could sit undisturbed to create her beautiful artwork. Mike Jorae, who was with me, attempted to free the young bird of the ectoparasite. He slowly reached up and touched the mosquito to remove it. The nearly ready to fledge young birds became frightened and fled the nest. They were still unable to fly. Mike and I quickly gathered the young and placed them back in the nest. To calm them to stay in the nest, I held my hand over the birds and slowly removed it. 

The birds remained still in the nest. I noticed my hand was black with parasitic biting bird lice that feed on blood, feathers, and skin. Nests are essential for the rearing of many young birds, but they are also dangerous places to live. The sooner young can leave the better. Birds have methods to reduce the number of lice on their bodies such as “anting.” “Anting” is when birds land on an ant hill and allow ants to crawl on them where they feed on parasites and bite the bird feathers. The formic acid from ants becomes an insect repellent. To protect themselves from mosquitoes, they can shoo them with wings, feet, and movement. 

American Woodcocks have precocial young, meaning they can leave the nest almost immediately after hatching. This is the case with ducks, geese, grouse, and shorebirds. Hawks, eagles, owls, thrushes, sparrows, and warblers are altricial, requiring extended development time in the nest. 

Twice this week we saw an American Woodcock standing on the driveway in early pre-sunrise light. First Karen saw one when she left in dim dawn light to spend the day with grandson Walden. I saw it standing in the drive a couple days later. It was not moving except for some slow head turning. The gravel drive is too packed for it to probe for worms. Worms are the typical food found where they probe mud in the shrubby forested floodplain. 

Woodcocks are classified with the shorebird group, but they spend time in upland fields doing their aerial mating displays. In spring they nest in young aspen forests. Considerable time is spent in the low wetlands feeding along streams. Mosquitoes can be abundant in the shaded floodplain habitat. 

I wondered if the woodcock has learned it can get a reprieve from biting mosquitoes by standing in an open area. Breeze helps blow biting insects away, but the air was still on this morning. Perhaps, just being away from prime mosquito habitat is effective protection. I recently saw a Wild Turkey laying in the driveway.

I am not a “bird brain” but sometimes wish I were. It would help me understand the lives of birds and how they survive in their nature niche.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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