A Big Bird, Helping Endangered Birds

During a visit to the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge last fall, I was surprised to see a small plane passing repeatedly over areas of the prairie. Its color — yellow — is one I usually associate with crop dusters, but I couldn’t imagine dusting refuge prairies with herbicides. Mosquito-spraying was my next guess, but there was no one around to ask, so I went on my way.

Early yesterday morning, I happened to be in the neighborhood, and took time for a quick drive around the auto loop. While I was busy stalking a Crested Caracara on the road, a low hum in the distance made me look up. It was the same yellow airplane, and a quick change of camera settings allowed me to catch an image of it.

I had been headed out of the refuge at the time, but curiosity demanded that I turn around, go back to the refuge headquarters, and look for an answer. The visitor center has been closed for months, but eventually a ranger spotted me nosing around the outbuildings, and came to see what I was up to. Her explanation of the work being done by the plane was both fascinating and wonderful.

The plane wasn’t spraying; it was dropping fire ant bait. [NOTE: after talking with a refuge employee this morning, I learned that the product being used is called Extinguish Plus, and it’s commercially available.] Fire ants are immensely annoying to humans, but they’re lethal to hatchlings. The young woman explained that, since the bait-dropping project began, the number of other insects on the prairie has increased, and so has the number of ground-dwelling birds. I didn’t see any of the prairie chickens during my visit, but an exceptionally large covey of quail crossed in front of me on Sunday: a visible token of the project’s success.


Comments always are welcome.

46 thoughts on “A Big Bird, Helping Endangered Birds

    1. Anything that reduces the fireant population is a winner in my books. They’re so destructive, and not only to insects and nestlings. They’ll kill newborn calves and fawns, too — not to mention how annoying their bites can be for humans.

  1. Like you, I’m a fan of any fire ant control program. I wonder what type of bait they are using at the refuge? We have the fire ants in our clearing under control from annual or semi-annual applications of beneficial nematodes and the occasional mound flooding with orange oil or spinosad solution, but we’re just working a small area. The folks at the refuge have a lot more territory to cover and a sensitive ecosystem to protect. I’m glad whatever they are doing seems to be working.

    1. At the time, I didn’t think to ask which product they were using; the conversation moved on to the road-crossing birds I’d seen, and how to distinguish prairie chickens from quail.

      There was a good bit of controversy some years ago about aerial spraying for fire ants, but it was obvious no product was being sprayed over Attwater. That’s part of what fed my curiosity; I couldn’t imagine why the plane was criss-crossing the land. Eventually, I’ll find out more, but I’m glad that they’ve found a technique that seems to be helping.

  2. Your title is a reminder that the word for ‘airplane’ in many of the Romance languages (French and Romanian avion, Spanish avión, Portuguese avião, Catalan avió) is based on Latin avis, which meant ‘bird.’ The -on suffix is an augmentative, so those Romance words for ‘airplane’ mean literally ‘big bird.’

    1. Like most people, when I hear a reference to ‘big bird’ my first thought’s of the cartoon character who happens to be the same bright yellow as most crop-dusting planes. Since crop-dusting began long before Big Bird arrived on the scene, I wondered if those planes might have played a role in his color. I couldn’t find any information about that, but I did learn that Big Bird is different colors in different parts of the world: particularly, blue and green.

      The Latin avis certainly brings to mind ‘aviation,’ ‘avionics,’ ‘avian,’ and so on. I did wonder about the Avis car rental agency. Granted, renting a car can allow someone to metaphorically fly, but a quick look revealed that the fellow who founded the business — Warren Avis — was distantly related to he House of Aviz. Wiki claims that the Portuguese translation of ‘House of Aviz’ is Casa de Avis. Maybe yes, maybe no. It is Wiki, after all.

      1. Ancestry.com says that Avis is “from the Norman female personal name Avice (Old French Avice, Latin Avitia, also found in a masculine form, Avitius). This is of uncertain origin, perhaps from a Celtic (Gaulish) name.” I don’t know how scholarly Ancestry’s derivations are.

        1. I don’t know, either. Several friends who are interested in genealogy seem to depend on it, and I have used it from time to time to find gravesites, and it’s always been accurate in that regard.

    1. Trust me. Fire ants are awful. When I got some good knee-high boots, I was thinking about watery areas — and maybe snakes — but I’ve discovered they’re quite useful for avoiding fire ant stings, too. Every now and then I miss seeing a mound and step on top of it; the boots allow shaking off the ants before they cause trouble.

    1. Of course they wouldn’t do such a thing. Since I grew up around crop dusters, that was my first assumption, even though I’d learned a few things about prairie management. It turns out I was quite wrong, and the explanation was more than interesting. Now, I’m wondering if there are ranchers who are using the same technique. So many questions!

  3. How interesting, and what a wonderful idea.
    That reminds me: I really need to do something against the fire ants in our yard. They are proliferating like mad.

    1. I’m really glad I took the time to figure out what was going on. I just added a note inside the post; the product that they’re using is called Extinguish Plus, and it’s available commercially.

      Here’s a link to a page that offers more information. I noticed this: “It is recommended to broadcast the treatment instead of mound treat for best results.” An airplane flying low over the ground would be perfect! Early fall is a recommended time to treat, since the soil needs to be above 65F, it needs to be dry for at least right hours post-application.

      1. Thanks for the information and for the link, Linda. I use Acephat and Amdro together. That’s a recommendation of many years ago from the extension agent in Karnes City, because that way the queens are killed, too.

  4. Fire ants are the absolute pits. The word “scourge” comes to mind. Part of the problem is that they have no natural enemies here.

    1. Exactly so, although I have read some articles about research being done with natural predators like the South American parasitic phorid flies. The fly lays an egg inside the ant. Then, the egg hatches into a larva, and after that it’s the stuff of your basic horror movie. Personally, I’m rooting for the flies.

    1. For an impulsive trip into the refuge, it was rewarding in a number of ways; seeing the plane and learning about its role in eliminating fire ants was especially interesting. Beyond that, I discovered the mosquitoes there seemed to be a different species, and the ones that came to visit me in my car didn’t seem at all interested in biting. It was nice, but a little strange!

    1. My horizons certainly got broadened, Jean. I was glad I got the opportunity to photograph the plane. I’ve discovered that there’s an airport near the refuge, there’s a flight school and flight training program in the nearby town. If they’re not involved in the work at the refuge, they’ll surely know who is. It would be fun to get in contact with the pilot and learn more about how the program works.

    1. I’ll say this — grasshoppers were everywhere during my last couple of visits. In fact, it took me some time to realize that the Crested Caracara were walking the roads in search of them. Why expend all that energy in flight when you can snatch a meal from ground-level grasses?

  5. No fire ants here, we do have red ants that can be a pain, but it is good to know they can be controlled. Like you, my first thought was the PBS character. Insects are on the decline all over the world, even in my backyard thanks to my neighbor’s lawn fetish, so the increase there is good news.

    You were also stalking a big bird. I work with someone named Cara, as in Cara Mia not Caracara, and wonder if she knows about the bird.

    1. The Caracara’s range is so limited in the U.S. I’d be surprised if your friend did know about it. On the other hand, I know about a few tropical birds that I’ve never seen, thanks to the internet and such, so it’s possible she’s encountered it. Cara’s a pretty name, and of course now ‘that song’ will be playing in my mind for a while.

      Any success in controlling fire ants is to be celebrated. There are some ants I enjoy, such as the leaf-cutters, but like the army ants I learned about in Liberia, I’d be perfectly happy never to encounter another fire ant in my life.

  6. I’ve always been glad I don’t live in fire ant country, Linda. This is one more reason. I know that they are totally different, but the hassle reminds me of fighting with Army ants in Liberia. –Curt

    1. I never, ever will forget the day the army ants came through my house at Phebe, Curt. I thought some of the stories I’d heard were part truth, part folktale, but after that day I was a believer in all the stories I’d heard: even the more gruesome ones about using those ants for nefarious purposes. Being nibbled to death while staked across a bush path isn’t’ my idea of a good time!

      1. They sure made me a believer, Linda. I watched them chomp down on a live mouse. It was not a pretty sight. And my next door neighbor, the school principal barley, saved his baby from them. Fortunately the baby, not wanting to be eaten alive, screamed very loudly.

  7. “Anything that reduces the fireant population is a winner in my books.” – I am not sure I agree with this statement, Linda (your first response above). I suspect that everyone would agree that a diminution of fire ants is a winner for humans and wildlife alike, with the caveat that it does not cause collateral harm. There was a time when DDT was considered the panacea for everything, until Rachel Carson set us straight. I would like to know what they are dropping and what the long-term consequences are. If it targets fire ants and nothing else, with no side effects, then it is obviously a winner. And I would like to see an unbiased assessment from impartial qualified academics, not the manufacturer’s propaganda sheet.

    1. The product being used combines hydramethylnon with an insect growth inhibitor. You can read the fact sheet on hydramethylnon here. The US Fish & Wildlife staff person I talked with indicated that the effects of the product on other insects and wildlife are negligible: hence its use on a refuge dedicated to protecting one of our most vulnerable birds.

      I have no doubt that the people making decisions about how to manage the Attwater preserve are qualified: academically and otherwise. They have been using this product for at least a decade, and tracking the results. This abstract excerpt from the Journal of Wildlife Management is relevant:

      ” During 2011–2012, we evaluated the reduction of fire ants on invertebrate numbers and biomass by aerially treating areas with Extinguish Plus™ in an impact‐reference study design. Treated fields had 27% more individual invertebrates and 26% higher invertebrate biomass than reference fields. Our results clearly document that invertebrate abundance affects Attwater’s prairie‐chicken brood survival and that fire ants may indirectly contribute to low brood survival by suppressing invertebrate abundance.”

      The entire article and details of the studies’ histories is available here.

    1. It is! Even for a non-scientist like me, a couple of advantages are apparent. One is that it’s granular and broadcast rather than mound-applied. Looking for mounds in a suburban lawn is one thing. Trying to find them in a large prairie is quite another; given the number of nests I’ve accidentally disturbed without ever seeing them has given me a sense of that. Beyond that, it’s not necessary to use multiple products — and best of all, there aren’t negative effects to the environment.

    1. Thanks to my attempts to capture some photos of the Crested Caracara, I had the right lens on for the plane, and thanks to the plane’s relatively slow movement, it worked out well. The experience was quite interesting, and I learned a good bit after the fact.

    1. It’s a little noisier in flight than many birds, and it certainly can’t secret itself away in the trees, but like all birds, it has its purpose and serves it well!

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