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Crickets and grasshoppers are a common feature in many birds’ diets, particularly during the breeding season. Even birds that do not normally eat insects will incorporate grasshoppers and crickets in their food intake when raising young, as a valuable source of protein. But how do they catch these long-legged springy insects and what benefits do birds get from eating grasshoppers?
More than 200 bird species are known to prey on grasshoppers to feed themselves and their young. Grasshoppers and crickets are a readily available source of high-energy food and provide vital proteins needed for healthy growth and development.
Grasshoppers consist of around 50 to 70 percent protein, a nutrient that is vital to the rapid development of nestlings in their early days.
They are also relatively widespread across the world and abundant in many natural environments. Another benefit for birds, grasshoppers, and crickets are fairly easy to catch and do not demand a high level of energy expenditure needed when pursuing or carrying off larger prey.
But although grasshoppers are seen by many gardeners and farmers as a destructive pest, they also play a vital role of their own in their local habitats, both as a prey item for many bird species and as a consumer, helping to control vegetation and contribute to biodiversity.
To learn more about why grasshoppers are such a superfood in the diet of many birds, carry on reading!
Pictured: A Zitting Cisticola. More than 200 bird species are known to prey on grasshoppers to feed themselves and their young
Grasshoppers are a key element of the diet of many bird species, from songbirds to owls and crows to hawks. For some, grasshoppers are on the menu all year round, while for others, they are introduced for the duration of the breeding season, when vast quantities of extra nutrients are needed.
The hard exoskeleton of grasshoppers is rich in chitin, a vital protein that promotes growth and development in young birds. Fats from grasshoppers are also a useful source of energy for nesting birds.
Grasshoppers account for between 30 to 90 percent of the diet of grassland birds. In the breeding season, the number of birds with grasshoppers in their diet reaches a peak, for example, more than 70 percent of the prey fed to Chestnut-collared Longspur nestlings is grasshoppers.
In areas with abundant grasshopper populations, several large bird species, including Kestrels, Meadowlarks, Gulls, and Hawks, have been observed to eat around 100 grasshoppers a day when feeding hungry nestlings.
Burrowing Owls are another species that rely heavily on grasshoppers in the early stages of their life. In the nesting period, young owlets are most commonly fed on small mammals by their parents. However, once they leave their burrows and begin foraging for their own prey, they hunt and capture large numbers of grasshoppers as they perfect their hunting techniques.
Crows will eat grasshoppers, although usually only in periods of prolonged drought when other food sources are not as readily available.
Pictured: Eurasian Sparrow. Grasshoppers account for between 30 to 90 percent of the diet of grassland birds
Grasshoppers are generally solitary insects, which combined with their relatively large size, makes them easier to spot and to catch.
Sit-and-watch techniques are used by many birds, which then pounce or swoop in to pick off their intended prey from the vegetation. Grasshoppers are unable to move well in cold weather, and for this reason, many are caught early in the day before they have warmed up and become fully mobile.
Flycatchers may use a sallying technique, observing the grasshoppers as they move from plant to plant and then pouncing while they are in mid-air.
Other birds, particularly Wrens, may use their thin bills to lift bark and probe underneath to forage for grasshoppers.
One species with a particularly fascinating approach to incorporating grasshoppers into its diet is the Loggerhead Shrike. Shrikes capture grasshoppers and crickets and then impale them on thorny twigs or even barbed-wire spikes before returning later once they have built up a stash, and then eat them one by one, decapitating them if necessary. They are the only known predators of the toxic lubber grasshopper and remove its thorax before consuming it, so avoid ingesting any poison.
Pictured: A Loggerhead Shrike. Shrikes capture grasshoppers and crickets and then impale them on thorny twigs or even barbed-wire spikes
Both birds and grasshoppers have an important status in the ecosystems in which they live, helping to maintain habitats, protect crops, and reduce the need for the use of pesticides, as well as nutrient cycling and contributing to biodiversity.
With large numbers of bird species feeding on grasshoppers and crickets, particularly during the spring and summer breeding seasons, they play a vital role in controlling grasshopper populations and preventing excessive damage to crops and other vegetation. Grasshoppers, in turn, help to control unwanted vegetation and are useful in breaking down organic matter.
If birds were to stop eating grasshoppers, the knock-on impact on ecosystems is believed to be potentially catastrophic. Without birds to naturally control grasshopper numbers, it could quickly lead to a population boom in the insects, followed by the large-scale destruction of plants, flowers, and habitats needed by other wildlife species.
Grasshoppers are particularly attracted to wild vegetation with long grasses and weeds, so one first step to making your garden a grasshopper haven is to stop mowing and cut back on maintenance. A range of tall grasses offers shelter, breeding spots, and feeding opportunities for grasshoppers.
Planting agricultural crops is another sure way to bring visiting grasshoppers to your yard as many keen gardeners will testify. Their favorite crops include lettuce, beans, and onions.
Pictured: An Eastern Bluebird. Grasshoppers are particularly attracted to wild vegetation with long grasses and weeds
While many birds will readily eat grasshoppers, either solely when breeding or throughout the year, there are certain species that won’t be tempted by the crunchy critters.
Hummingbirds are unlikely to forgo sweet nectar at a feeder or flower in preference for a grasshopper, nor do the long-legged insects form a part of the natural diet of ducks, geese, and other waterfowl.
Pictured: An Annas Hummingbird. Hummingbirds are unlikely to forgo sweet nectar at a feeder or flower in preference for a grasshopper
Grasshoppers offer an important source of protein and other nutrients to a wide range of bird species and are a key element of the early diet of many young birds.
Due to their widespread availability in grasslands across the western hemisphere and the low energy expenditure needed for a successful catch, grasshoppers are an unrivaled choice of prey for many birds looking for a quick and nutritious meal. Even birds that normally survive on a seed-based diet will often benefit by changing their feeding habits to include grasshoppers when keeping up with the demands of feeding hungry nestlings.
Birds play a vital role in their local ecosystems, and by feeding on grasshoppers and crickets, they are able to contribute to the fine balance of nature.
By keeping the grasshopper population under control, birds help to prevent an excess population of these insects that can quickly become an agricultural pest by decimating flowers, plants, and cereal crops, with their insatiable appetites and ability to move from plant to plant quickly.
Chickens will readily eat grasshoppers and they are a useful source of protein for both adult chickens and young chicks.
While the vast majority of grasshopper species are not poisonous to birds, there are a few types that are highly toxic and would be harmful if ingested.
Two of these species are the Aposematic Grasshopper and the Eastern Lubber Grasshopper. The only known bird species to be able to eat the eastern Lubber Grasshopper and survive is the Loggerhead Shrike, which cleverly removes the grasshopper’s thorax where the toxins are stored before safely eating the rest of its body.
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