do birds eat ticks off deer

Ticks are more than just annoying, biting insects. They can also spread a variety of frightening illnesses, such as rickettsiosis, tularemia, human anaplasmosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, lyme disease, and more. If tick-borne diseases are frightening due to their various complications and costly medical treatments, the overuse of toxic chemicals that may be applied carelessly or incorrectly to repel ticks is even more concerning. When those same chemicals are used incorrectly, they can cause entirely different reactions and problems in pets that might be sensitive to chemicals as well as in people. Thankfully, there are a number of natural solutions available that deter ticks without posing the same risks as using chemicals.

Thom van Dooren is a philosopher and a corvid enthusiast. His most recent book is The Wake of Crows: Living and Dying in Shared Worlds (Columbia University Press, 2019). He is an associate professor and Australian Research Council Future Fellow at the University of Sydney and a Professor II at the University of Oslo. www.thomvandooren.org

While these videos fascinate, delight, and frequently disgust, YouTube viewers, these behaviors are not uncommon in the animal kingdom. Symbiotic cleaning, across species lines, is a particularly common practice for fish, crustaceans, and birds. The animals who receive these cleaning treatments are mostly larger fish and herbivores. In the case of corvids, studies have documented the symbiotic cleaning of deer, wild boars, camels1, and a handful of other species.

Perhaps my favorite example—sadly, one without footage—is another Australian case involving the same species, the Torresian Crow. At the top of the Northern Territory, on the Cobourg Peninsula, these crows have struck up an unlikely relationship with banteng (Bos javanicus), a species of feral cattle that was introduced to Australia in 1849. Over the last couple of decades, scientists have observed crows landing on the backs of resting banteng. The banteng will then roll onto its side and lift its upper legs—which is not a comfortable or easy posture for a banteng—so that the crow can access the area under the legs and belly. Moving into this space, crows have then been observed removing ectoparasites, likely ticks, from these exposed areas.

While this kind of cleaning is not in itself exceptional, the degree of attunement between the cleaner and the client in this case is fascinating. In many cases, as with the wallabies, the clients seem not to agree to the treatment at all. In other cases, as in a beautiful set of photos of a house crow cleaning a cow in India, we can see some degree of ‘posing’ and positioning to facilitate access. But in the case of the banteng and the crow, a whole procedure seems to have been worked out and agreed to. Torresian crows aren’t known to have similar relationships with any other mammals, and banteng around the world aren’t known to deliberately expose themselves for grooming by any other bird. Yet this is happening here. We will never know which crafty individuals struck up this mutualism, how those first awkward interactions took place, how a proposal was made, and how an agreement was reached that such vulnerability was worth the risk. But we do know that this behavior is spreading as more and more banteng and crows around the region get in on the action.

There are lots of lessons that might be taken from all these inter-species interactions. One that particularly interests me, visible in the comments below many of these YouTube videos, is the desire to cash this behavior out in simple, black and white terms. Either this cleaning is an example of a helpful altruist, or it is a nasty, opportunistic, crow taking advantage of another. Biologists, too, are not immune to these kinds of explanations—although which ones are preferred does shift over time, as things like ‘selfish genes’ go in and out of fashion. As Robert Poulin and Alexandra S. Grutter noted, writing in the mid 1990s: “Over the past few decades … the opinion of scientists regarding cleaning symbioses has changed, from selfless cooperation, to a mutually beneficial interaction, and finally to a one-sided exploitation.”

FAQ

Does anything eat deer ticks?

Predators. Ticks have a variety of natural predators including ants, spiders, and birds, though most are generalists that only occasionally feed on ticks. As such, these generalist predators tend to be ineffective at significantly reducing tick populations.

What are the natural predators of deer ticks?

Some birds are natural predators of ticks. Ground-feeding birds like chickens and guinea fowl eat ticks, and their favorites are deer ticks. As zoning for chicken coops is becoming more common in urban and suburban areas, it may be possible to house chickens if you have a tick problem on your property.

Will birds eat ticks?

Welcome Tick-Eating Wildlife Wild birds eat a great number of insects, especially jays, robins and bluebirds. Domestic chickens and similar fowl, including ducks, geese, turkeys and guineafowl, also eat ticks and can help keep your yard and garden tick-free.

Which animal eats the most ticks?

Yes, opossums are one of the top predators for ticks and kill more than 90 percent of the ticks they encounter. Not only are opossums really good at removing ticks, they can also eat up to 5,000 ticks per season.