This week we've been watching The Life of Birds DVD set narrated by Sir David Attenborough. Have you ever seen the series? If you love nature you should, because it is so well done.
In one scene a rufous woodpecker from India is shown breaking open an ant nest and then busily eating ants. It piqued my curiosity, so I decided to see what else I could find out. Although I didn't find the exact scene online to show you, I did find videos of rufous woodpeckers eating ants.
This first video is rather dark, but shows two young birds feeding on ants.
It appears that these woodpeckers from the Kerala region of India specialize on ants. Vishnudas (2008) cites an earlier worker from 1912 who found 2,600 ants in the stomach of a rufous woodpecker.
Although this video is shaky, it shows another woodpecker going after ants. (Makes you appreciate the quality of the footage from the Attenborough DVD.) It cuts away as the ants come rushing out of their nest.
It turns out that Rufous Woodpeckers, Micropternus brachyurus, not only use ants as their main food source, but also depend on Crematogaster ants for nesting sites. The birds work together to open up the carton nests of Crematogaster ants, and then build their own nests inside.
In his paper, Vishnudas also reports that several other species of birds follow the rufous woodpeckers and feed on the escaping ants when the rufous woodpeckers tear ant nests open.
In North America, there are woodpeckers specialize on ants, as well.
Northern flickers probably eat the most ants. They spend much of their time feeding on the ground around anthills. One flicker was found to have 5,000 ants in its stomach.
Doesn't it look like the flicker is trying to dig out larvae and pupae rather than workers?
Pileated woodpeckers often cut slots into tree trunks or logs to get at carpenter ant nests inside. The woodpeckers will continue to return to the same opening over time, picking off ants that peer through the opening or that rush out to protect the nest.
It is fascinating to find out about these birds that are so dependent on ants for survival.
Have you seen any of the Attenborough series?
Vishnudas, C. K. 2008. Crematogaster ants in shaded coffee plantations: a critical food source for Rufous Woodpecker Micropternus brachyurus and other forest birds. Indian Birds. 4:9-11. (Available from Google Docs as a free .pdf)
The The Life of Birds DVD set:
The Life of Birds book by David Attenborough
(Affiliate links to Amazon)