Kingbirds and grasshoppers on the Llano Estacado

Published Jun 18th 2000 in Wildlife

On the Llano Estacado, grasshoppers offer a visible and audible companionship to a walk during the growing season. Western Kingbirds eat grasshoppers. Kingbirds are vociferous birds with a definite sense of propriety.

During the buffalo prairie days, far fewer kingbirds lived on the Southern Llano Estacado. Nowadays, people have planted thousands (if not millions) of trees around their houses, in parks, and around cemeteries. Kingbirds require a nest site that is at least twenty feet above the ground. Only trees in the soapberry-hackberry groves in the draws, and tree-form yuccas proved to be acceptable nesting sites during the buffalo prairie days.

At times, it seems that birds have totems (or symbols of significance.) Blue Grosbeaks always place snakeskins in their nests. Chihuahuan Ravens in modern times usually have strands of bobwire and baling wire laced through their bulky nests. Kingbirds always use grass roots as part of the nest lining. Is it a paean to their food source’s diet? The effort to utilize them seems excessive for the minor benefit the tough roots provide. Anthropomorphizing is condemned by science, but it sometimes cements a person’s emotional interactions with the natural world.

Kingbirds have several rituals. Not only does the nest contain plant roots (and formerly buffalo hair), but it is also adorned with ornamentation. Feathers are often decoratively interwoven with the other construction materials, and one bird mentioned in scientific literature reportedly color-coordinated the feathers. Prairie flowers are often picked and aesthetically arranged on the outside of the nest. When available, bloom sprays of sage (Artemisia sp.) are included. Did the Indians learn their concept of the holiness of sage from the Kingbird?

Other behaviors appear ritualistic at times. Nestlings face the sunrise, and watch the sunset before nodding off. Do adult Kingbirds watch the sunrise and sunset as carefully? They must, for last light and first light are prompts for garrulous and voluble discussions, which at times become deafening.

Kingbirds utilize favorite perches, claiming the highest and most open, returning consistently, and defending the perch from other species of birds. In the middle of moonlit nights, Kingbirds make a strange kitten-like mew, so unlike their normal voice that I wonder about its intent. Is it a bad dream -- or do birds dream? Is it fear of the darkness of the night? What could the reason be? I like wondering about such things!

School is held for the young Kingbird. When the young are beginning to test their wings, the adult brings food but does not feed the young. Instead, the parent releases the insect, urging the young to fly after the escaping prey. Over and over, for hours, the adult brings prey for the young, just as my father played catch for hours with me.

The next day, the family moves to the best feeding grounds and the adults put on a display of fancy swoops and dives as they catch flying prey. The young chatter in admiring supplication for a share of the spoils. During the day the young begin to catch prey on their own, with the adults supervising their efforts. When a young bird attempts to catch a female bee (with stinger) adults intervene to stop the unknowing youngster. Kingbirds are able to recognize stingerless drone bees after a little of such training.

School includes lessons in drinking and bathing, which are both performed on the wing. A correct tilt of the head at a certain speed enables a kingbird to scoop up a drink without wetting a single feather. For a bath, a different angle of attack allows the kingbird to smack their belly on the water, using the surface tension to bounce them back out of the water.

Kingbirds chase raptors for fun. The first screams and screams, bringing up to a dozen more, until a contest develops to see who can count coup in the most daredevilish way. The bravest ones yank feathers from the predator, and even manage to score a peck on the back of its head from time to time. In the earliest days of aviation, slow little biplanes got hassled.

Kingbird courtship is like that of teenaged humans - a party. Males dive and turn somersaults, yelling loudly. Three, four, seven males swarm a tree where a female preens. As one male begins to win favor, the other males continue to show off, only to be left behind and avoided.

Every few years there is a population explosion of grasshoppers. Kingbirds easily fill their stomachs in a few minutes, leaving too much idle time. They become arrogant. Some West Texans feud with their neighbor Kingbirds, irritated by the loud fussing and fighting. Squabbles erupt between neighboring pairs, and even a passing Cardinal gets jeered. Big fat juicy grasshoppers are played with and dropped after a tiny tidbit has been removed, its carcass to be immediately recycled by even more grasshoppers cannibalizing.

Grasshoppers are paurometabolic -- once born, a grasshopper is always a grasshopper (no metamorphosis). Grasshoppers are polyphagous as well -- they eat anything botanical, as well as other insects, meat, cloth, and paint. Grasshopper spit is acidic.

Under a handlens grasshoppers appear to be mechanical contraptions, aliens with a malevolent expression. Up to thirty milligrams of vegetation is eaten daily. As few as seven grasshoppers per square yard is enough to alter the amount of forage, the growth of plants, and the dynamics of seed production. A serious infestation can change habitat and lead to soil erosion. It is not only man that alters the landscape, for many creatures disturb ecosystems with regularity.