Written by Collin McMichael, Education Coordinator
When I was a small child and had just finished a hunting trip with my father it was usually my turn to pluck the ducks. I really liked hunting, but I never liked plucking ducks. It’s not the smell, or the duck dander, or the fact that you’re holding onto a dead duck and methodically pulling out all of its feathers. Instead, more often than not, it was what was living on said dead ducks that did me in. These newfound terrors were so vile that I literally have nightmares to this day of their small, brownish, translucent bodies billowing forth from the dead birds and clinging to my arms as I frantically attempted to brush them off in vain. That’s right! Today’s Bug of the Month is none other than the bird louse.
You have probably heard of a louse before. Sharing an Old English feminine noun gender with the mouse, louse becomes lice (often faster than you’d hope). Their etymology gets even more fun if you like diphthongs. Much like the word diphthong, the order of lice has its share of diphthongs. Now that you’ve read the word diphthong so many times, here’s a ridiculous name for an insect order: Phthiraptera.
Phthirapterans, or lice for the layperson, get their name from the Ancient Greek for louse, phtheir, combined with a descriptive epitaph, –aptera, implying that they universally have no wings. Interestingly, lice have been so despicable for millennia that their name comes from phtheírō, the Ancient Greek for “I destroy”. Bird lice have some pretty great names for their families, too. Bird lice are found in the families Menoponidae, Laemobothriidae, Ricinidae, and Philopteridae, but like the order’s name, they’re all Greek to me.
Bird lice generally reside, get this, on birds. They have evolved into dorso-ventrally flattened beasties with a nearly preternatural ability to cling to anything thanks to modified tarsal claws. In fact, bird lice were probably one of the first groups of lice to evolve. Bird lice are chewers, not suckers, so they don’t pierce the skin like your typical head-louse so much as graze willy-nilly on skin flakes. Chewing lice are also found on mammals, but it’s more than likely that they perpetrated a host switching event sometime in the Cretaceous when they decided they wanted some tasty mammalian meat instead of bird bits. Bird lice can still cause discomfort for birds despite their lack of hematophagy. Some avian behaviors such as anting, either rubbing ants all over themselves or resting with wings outstretched on an ant pile, may help birds keep these exasperating ectoparasites at bay.
When it comes to anting, birds have to be a bit nit-picky about which ants to use. Mostly, only those that spray formic acid and belong to the Formicinae subfamily work well. That means the red imported fire ant, which is so prevalent in central Texas, is not a great option. Red imported fire ants are Myrmecinae and will inject venom below the skin instead of spraying acid around like some sort of demonic sprinkler system. So, to be a friend to birds, planting trees seems like an obvious answer, but possibly for reasons you’re not thinking of. Since red imported fire ants require full sunlight to stay warm enough for reproduction and increased canopy cover can actually reduce the number of fire ants present locally. This means native ants can move back in and now birds can take a bug bath to keep their lice in check. Nothing is worse than a lousy bird! Except maybe fire ants.
If for some unforeseeable reason you were oddly keen on finding a bird louse of your very own because you just aren’t sure what all the fuss is about, I would recommend doing nest checks. The next time you find yourself gazing longingly up into the branches of your tree, look for any bird nests that may be close by. Alternatively, cleaning out nesting boxes generally yields at least one or two entomological wonders. Generally, the best time to check is when the younglings have fledged recently. If you poke around long enough in the sticks, grass, and inevitable plastic bags that city birds like to use, you’re liable to find your very own miniscule monstrosity.
Luckily, no matter how many bird lice you end up with attached to your integument, they can’t live for very long after they’ve been separated from their host species. Once separated from its ever-fresh blood-bag, lice generally wither and die within days. That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t stop the fact that my brain screams “Kill it with fire!” every time I see one near me.
Bird lice as a whole are more of a nuisance than the unholy terrors my brain seems to think they are. That being said they can still have economic importance when it comes to poultry. As chewers, bird lice don’t pass diseases like their more vampiric cousins; however, they do cause enough discomfort in heavily infested poultry to reduce weight and eggs laid. If you’re one of the 98.9% of Austinites with a backyard chicken, lice might be why she hasn’t been laying recently. I told you nothing was worse than a lousy bird!
Click here to read November’s Bug of the Month.
Click here to read January’s Bug of the Month.