This flitter looks cute, but to a bug on the forest floor, it’s part of a post-apocalyptic motorcycle gang pillaging the remnants of civilisation.
Okay, that’s an extreme way of saying it eats the creatures flushed out by army ants, but if you were on the ground and a dark wave of gnashing mandibles rolled towards you, the last thing you’d want is a sneaky bird snatching you via the only escape route.
But this is how antbirds live and feed, so despite the name, they don’t touch the ants themselves, just the crickets, cockroaches, spiders and other arachnids fleeing in their wake. If you look at a swarm of army ants, such as Eciton burchellii, you’ll understand why – they have horrifying hook-like mandibles, a painful sting, and there can be up to 2,000,000 of them in a single colony. So perhaps death by bird beak is more merciful…?
Marauder or guardian angel, the white-breasted antbird spends its days following the ant swarm, and woe betide any other bird that ventures within a metre of it. If they do, they’ll be snapped at both audibly and physically, or be faced with a floofed-up crest for maximum intimidation.
It’s not just its food source it’s defending. If you’re a male, the way to a female’s heart is through her stomach, so you’d either take her there on a date or to re-kindle the romance. We think it breeds during the rainy season, but since it lives in the depths of the Brazilian Amazon, it’s not massively documented, and most of the information we have comes from Dr. Edwin O. Willis’ awesomely extensive study of it and other species back in the 1960s.
In addition to the above behaviours, he found that it has a specific alarm call for when hawks fly too near, and that compared to other antbirds, the white-breasted adds more “snarls” more frequently to the end of its bird song. He did also spot one female eating an army ant, but suggested she probably found it revolting. Usually, it’s quick enough to swoop down and catch prey right under the ants’ handlebar mandibles, so catching ants themselves isn’t a huge reach, just not worth the after-taste!
Another anomaly Willis found was the harlequin antbird. It lives just across the river from the white-breasted antbird, and looks extremely similar (no joke, I’d originally planned to write about the harlequin based on the above photo, until the photographer corrected me. Thank you, Fabio!). Why would there be two completely different species that evolved side by side in the same area without any crossbreeding? Either they’re the worst kind of right wing (sorry) or they were on isolated forest islands in the past.
Speaking of isolation, the white-breasted antbird sadly isn’t when it comes to deforestation. Although most of the population lives in Protected Areas, it’s listed as Near Threatened due to the Amazon being pillaged. And no one’s coming out of that carnage looking cute.
Latin: Rhegmatorhina hoffmannsi
What? Pretty jungle bird that lives off the carnage of army ants
Where? Brazil, between the Rio Madeira and Rio Tapajós
How big? 15cm / 6 inches long
Endangered? Currently Near Threatened, due to habitat destruction in the Amazon.
Probable motto: Hey, get your own, eating ant escapees was my idea!
They look cute. Do they need my help at all?
There don’t seem to be any specific campaigns for these little antbirds, but their Amazon home is obviously in peril. It’s both good and bad that there are so many conservation efforts to choose from, so here are a few to check out if you want to help.
Just to prove I’m not fibbing
Diamond, Sarah. No date. “Eciton burchellii“. Animal Diversity Web.
“Rhegmatorhina hoffmannsi“. No date. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Ridgely, Robert S., and Tudor, Guy. 2009. Field guide to the songbirds of South America: the passerines. University of Texas Press.
“White-breasted antbird Rhegmatorhina hoffmannsi“. No date. Neotropical Birds, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Willis, Edwin O. 1969. “On the Behavior of Five Species of Rhegmatorhina, Ant-following Antbirds of the Amazon Basin“. The Wilson Bulletin 81(4):363-395.
Featured image credit: “White-breasted antbird” by Fabio Schunck.