Recently, in certain circles, insects have come to be defined as “bird food.” I was going to devote this post to describing why this is offensive, because it is, but it also occurred to me how hilarious this is, because it is that, too. Let us begin.
The first question that may come to mind is, “What is not bird food?” Like pretty much all animals, birds need protein matter to grow, and fats and carbohydrates to burn for energy. Berries, seeds, insects, and small vertebrates are all on the menu for at least some birds. There is obviously the need for resource partitioning among them all in any given habitat or ecosystem.
Spiders. Insects are spider food, but we do not want to bring those arachnids center stage, because they are even more revolting than “bugs.”
Heck, back in the day, we were probably bird food. Some five hundred years ago, the now-extinct Haas Eagle, known in legends of the Maori as te Hokioi or Pouakai, is thought to have been capable of killing human children. It was a real bird, but there are obviously no firsthand accounts of its predatory behavior. At least we did not encounter the giant, flightless “terror birds,” members of the long-extinct family Phorusrhacidae, which ruled parts of modern-day South America during the Cenozoic era, pre-dating humans by a wide margin.
According to the old cinematic and television westerns, dead people were frequently bird food. If old Festus hadn’t been seen for a while, the other cowboys would go looking for him. The next camera shot would be of vultures wheeling high above, and you knew that, sadly, they had found him. Today, we understand that vultures circling overhead means they are riding thermal updrafts. If they start descending, you know that they spotted poor Skippy.
Furthermore, insects are food for nearly every other organism. They are, arguably, more important to bats than birds. More important to anteaters, the aardvark, aardwolf, certain bears, marmosets….You get the picture, it is a complex network. Spiders. Insects are spider food, but we do not want to bring those arachnids center stage, because they are even more revolting than “bugs.” Please.
The basic message I am sending is that to single out insects in particular as “bird food” is silly at best, and misleading at worst. Framing insects as bird food is, however, easily converted into memes, and other over-simplified media services. We are doing the natural world a disservice by dumbing-down its complexities, and certainly by turning other organisms into one-dimensional entities. We do not approve when other humans are racially-profiled, stereotyped, and pigeon-holed. Right?
Whatever it is that birds do for you, in visceral and emotional terms, is what insects do for me.
I get it. The bird food message is an attempt to convince homeowners and gardeners to landscape with native plants to feed the caterpillars and other insects that in turn feed the birds. That works on those who already understand the way nature works. Most people do not. Will they tolerate insects more now because “my [bugs] bring all the [birds] to the yard*?” Maybe, but not likely, and any necessary application nuances for their particular biome will be lost on them.
A much better message would be one lodged in economics. The average household can save an enormous amount of money in maintenance, and possibly water use, by replacing lawnscapes and ornamental plants with native grasses, forbs, shrubs, trees, and vines. Everyone can comprehend that dispensing with the mower, fuel or electricity for it, and expenditures on fertilizers and pesticides is a “win” for their pocketbook as well as the planet.
The overriding problem, from my perspective, is that categorizing insects as bird food demeans any other human interest in insects. It prioritizes “your birds” over “my insects.” That air of superiority is what is offensive. Whatever it is that birds do for you, in visceral and emotional terms, is what insects do for me. Please understand that, and respect that my passion for insects is no less admirable and valid than your enjoyment of birding.
* Modification of the lyric “milkshakes bring all the boys to the yard,” from “Milkshake,” a song by Kelis.