Birds making best use of aphid outbreak

Kristin Purdy
Go Birding
PAUL HIGGINS courtesy photo
Wilson’s warblers feed by gleaning insects from foliage, and have likely...
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This year’s plague of aphids has been driving me crazy. The pests land on me and tickle when I step onto the deck, they’re stuck all over the barbecue grill, and scores commit suicide in the dog’s water bowl with each filling.

What’s up with the aphids this year?

Marion Murray of Utah State University’s Extension service made it all clear: Our prolonged warm summer and fall, along with a generally wetter pattern over the past few years, allowed higher-than-average numbers of aphids to propagate.

The weather might also be the factor that supported this year’s prodigious sap production in the clump of aspens overhanging my deck, quite possibly making the clump an aphid Xanadu, or in Marion’s terms, a “proper host.”

A certain population of aphid-lovers that frequents my aspens is as pleased with the plague as diners at a free all-you-can-eat buffet: The birds. The unusual weather has produced unusual bugs and sap, which has attracted unusual bird activity.

The best so far has been my first-ever Wilson’s warbler in the yard, a tiny yellow and olive sprite wearing a natty black beret. The bird appeared on the branch overhanging the deck and stayed for an hour one night. Even among warblers the Wilson’s is one of the flightiest, and to see one on the same branch gleaning aphids for such a long time is surprising.

The yellow-rumped warblers have been the most enduring. While yellow-rumps, fondly called “butter butts” by the birding community, usually appear in my yard two or three times a year, small flocks of a half-dozen have stayed and stayed in this, the year of the aphid. I’ve seen them nearly every day for six weeks. Even the early snow and subsequent hard freeze did not eradicate the aphids nor discourage the butter-butts, which continue to pick remaining insects off the lingering yellow leaves.

Pine siskins, streaky brown finches known more for eating seeds than insects, swarm over the leaves, branches and trunk in their ebullience to fuel on nature’s bounty. They even piled atop the black-capped chickadee’s nest box on the aspen trunk six at a time or dangled on the bungee cord securing the box as they picked the aphids.

The chickadees have dined as well. Like the siskins, chickadees will cling to anything at any angle to pick aphids, whether right-side-up or in a more catawampus position. They are the trapeze artists of the canopy, seeming to swing from aphid-covered leaf to leaf.

Dark-eyed juncos, members of the sparrow family and often more comfortable scratching through underbrush and feeding on the ground, have been picking aphids up in the aspens.

The American robins have surprised me, too. At 10 inches long and a weighty 2.7 ounces, the robin is a hefty songbird. Think of the preferred biomass of one night crawler to one aphid. But I’ve seen robins in the aspens picking aphids, or more exactly, gobbling bunches of them off the branches. Free food is free food, I guess.

My favorite aphid-eaters have been the northern flickers, our largest woodpecker species. Flickers more often feed on ants on the ground, or sometimes on fruits and seeds. I’ve seen both a male and a female fly within the branches of the aspens and either perch on a branch or cling to the trunk while blotting aphids with their tongues.

Woodpeckers’ tongues are so long that the muscles of the structure wrap around their ear openings inside their skull. That allows them to extend and retract their exceptionally long tongues into crevices, and from my perch at the kitchen window, I can see their hair-like tongues flicking in and out of the end of their beaks to the tree trunk.

Who knew that aphids could produce such fabulous bird activity right outside my kitchen window?

Despite my whining about the tribulations of dealing with the bugs, nature’s providence has bestowed a great birding experience close at hand. As I tell any exterminator peddling his services at the front door, “If you killed all the bugs around my house, what would the birds have to eat?”

Kristin Purdy can be reached at gobirding@comcast.net.

Kristin Purdy

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