Have you ever seen a bird hunting ants? Maybe you've seen one digging in the ground and wondered what they were feeding on? This article will go through which types of birds eat ants, how they catch them, and what types of ants they eat.
Many species of birds eat ants as part of their diets regularly. Birds that have a particular fondness for ants include; woodpeckers, pigeons, pheasants, sparrows, starlings, hummingbirds, crows, wild turkeys, antbirds, wrens and grouse. Birds that consume ants less frequently include; little owls, robins, blackbirds and cardinals.
Considering how tiny ants are, they do contain relatively high levels of protein. These high levels of protein are essential for the muscles of a bird, as it keeps them strong and able to fly.
If birds do not get enough protein from their diets, they could technically become unable to fly and perform everyday tasks.
Not only do ants contain protein, but they also contain zinc, iron and potassium. These three are equally important to a bird's well-being and will aid things like; helping the blood circulate oxygen and keeping the heartbeat regular.
Great Tit with ant in beak
Most birds regularly eat ants, some of which will have them as a staple of their diets, and others will be more opportunistic.
Eating ants makes much more sense for smaller birds, but larger birds only tend to eat them very rarely, as it can take a lot of energy to capture them - for larger, less agile birds, and then it'll also take a lot more ants to provide them with their nutritional requirements.
Woodpeckers, in general, eat more ants than any other group of birds. They love them! In some instances, ants can make up more than 50% of specific woodpeckers diets.
Pileated Woodpeckers, European Green Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers, and Downy Woodpeckers can commonly be spotted hunting for ants, larvae and eggs in gardens and backyards.
To hunt for them, they will forage on the ground, dig their beaks into the ground, and use their sticky tongues to lap up the ants. This method is adopted more by the ground feeding green woodpecker and northern flicker.
Other woodpeckers, including the Pileated Woodpecker, will hunt for ants in places like cedar trees. They use their powerful beaks to make significant, rectangular incisions in the hope of striking gold for some black carpenter ants. They will then lap hundreds of ants up and swallow them whole.
When winter comes around - and ants are harder to find, woodpeckers will eat other invertebrates, fruit and seeds.
Northern Flickers are known to consume over five thousand ants in one sitting alone!
Pileated Woodpecker eating ants
Starlings are omnivorous, which means they'll pretty much eat anything, and this includes ants. They can mostly be seen feeding in large groups taking over gardens, sweeping for insects, including ants.
Crows and Ravens aren't as frequent ant eaters as some of the other birds, but if food is scarce, they can be often spotted scanning lawns searching for insects and eating ants when they come across them.
Only smaller owls, such as the Little Owl and Elf Owl, eat ants, and this can be pretty rare as well. This is because it would require many ants to satisfy the intake for owls, and also, they aren't specialists at hunting them either, so the effort vs reward makes sense for them to feed on more giant insects and mammals.
Wood Pigeons and Doves are two of the most common species of pigeon that can be found consuming ants. One of the reasons for this is because their habitats are, generally speaking, have a much more abundant supply of ants.
Birds that eat ants in the US include:
Birds that eat ants in the UK include:
White-crowned Sparrow with ant in its beak
The most common types of ants birds eat include black garden ants, carpenter ants, red ants and flying ants. Fire ants are consumed by certain species of birds like the Purple Martin.
The location and habitat of the bird play a significant role in what ant species is consumed, as it'll often be down to what is about in the gardens where they are hunting and foraging.
Black Carpenter Ants are probably the most common type of ant consumed by birds. These are a favourite for both woodpeckers, starlings and sparrows.
Many different species of birds consume flying ants. Swallows frequently hunt and capture flying ants in the air. Their acrobatic agility helps them catch them efficiently on the wing, where they catch their prey. Other birds will also eat them where available and mostly when the flying ants are on the ground.
Purple Martins are known to regularly consume fire ants, mainly mating queen and male imported fire ants. These birds are primarily found across southern parts of the US and are thought to eat billions of fire ants each year, which has helped control the spread of this destructive species.
Other birds also eat fire ants from time to time but often need to be careful as fire ants can sometimes be deadly to birds, mainly their nests and chicks.
Most birds will capture ants from the ground, and this primarily is done on lawns. Woodpeckers use their long sticky tongues to grab ants from the ground, whereas most other birds will also forage around on the ground and peck their beaks into the soil to dig and claim their snacks - although they lack the sticky tongue.
This method of digging the beak into the soil is used to capture not only ants and is used for other insects that can be found under the lawn - including spiders and worms.
The only downside for birds hunting for ants on the ground is that it makes them much more vulnerable to predators, such as foxes, snakes and cats. This is why birds generally prefer feeding on feeders, trees and plants - away from the ground.
Birds will also hunt ants on branches, trees and plants.
Wryneck feeding on ants with long sticky tongue
Most of the time, ants are not a threat or harmful to birds. Southern Fire Ants can are the exception to this rule, as occasionally, they can attack and kill the nestlings of a bird. If you happen to have nesting birds in your garden and fire ants, consider controlling and getting rid of the fire ant population to ensure safety for the birds and their chicks.
Generally speaking, baby birds won't be fed ants by their parents. This is because they are hard-bodied insects and can be difficult to consume at such a young age. Instead, they are mostly fed other invertebrates such as caterpillars, spiders, flies, grubs and earthworms.
To attract woodpeckers and other birds that eat ants off the ground, make sure you keep your lawn cut to a suitable length. This makes it much easier for these birds to forage and search for ants when the grass is short.
Also, adding feeders to your garden will increase the number of birds visiting your backyard. Make sure to keep them well stocked and clean to provide good hygiene to the visiting birds.
If you happen to have a pet cat, consider having a bell put on the cat to help alert any birds. If birds don't feel safe in your garden due to cats or other predators, they're less likely to visit the garden in the first place, let alone forage for ants off the ground.
Essentially, the more birds that visit your garden, the more ants will generally be consumed by them.
Oriental Magpie Robin with ant in beak
Ants such as carpenter ants and fire ants are known to scavenge and eat dead birds. This is not only limited to birds, as they'll seek out most carrion (dead mammals), including mice.
Avoid ant killers that contain either diazinon, bendiocarb, and chlorpyrifos can all be harmful and toxic towards birds, so it's best to avoid using any ant killers containing these. Instead, we recommend ant killers containing either eugenol or diatomaceous earth. Both of these are safe to use around birds.
Many commonly used insecticides and pesticides can be harmful to birds. This can be from plants that have been treated and the poisoned ants themselves.
If at all possible, try using growth regulators to control your ant problem. These can be highly effective at treating infestation and will be completely harmless to birds and other wildlife.