mufflehead

My tranquil lakeshore community is inundated each year by a pervasive invader. They loom above the treetops in the late evening, swarms swaying in the breeze like black flags of doom. During the day, they carpet buildings, shrubs and cars until disturbed by the slightest movement. Then, this mass of agitated, blind, and deaf piles of flying intestines swarm around any unfortunate soul who comes to close. One or two are inevitably inhaled every year, causing much spitting, hacking, and general unpleasant behavior until the shock subsides. In a few weeks, millions of tiny bug bodies will litter the ground, leaving only millions of tiny green smudges on everything they’ve touched (including vinyl siding and new car finishes). Oddly, their remains seem to be impervious to power-washers.

These tiny bugs appear exactly like large mosquitoes save for two fluffy antennae on their heads (hence “Mufflehead“). They can’t sting or even bite, having no mouth parts. This obviously leads to an exceptionally short life, for which we are all grateful.

I’ve noticed something odd about these little creatures. Other little creatures that normally would enjoy a tasty meal of bugs (namely.. birds) seem to shy away from muffleheads. As a matter of fact, their lack of sensory organs and naturally sedentary behavior (when not swarming) should make muffleheads easy-pickings for any predator. Actually, getting a sitting mufflehead to move is very difficult. They’re pretty dumb. But, birds will not dive through swarms of these bugs, picking up hundreds at a time. I’ve seem birds abandon nests in trees taken-over by mufflehead swarms. And the few times I’ve seen a bird actually eat a live mufflehead, they only pluck one, then immediately land.

And sit there.

With an expression that, I, well….

Both times I’ve seen a live mufflehead eaten (by a bird), it was almost as if the bird in question had just eaten a bad hamburger. It’s the same look of disappointment and indigestion I’ve had on my face after leaving Burger King. But, on a bird.

However, upon the death of a mufflehead, they become a delicacy. Birds will comb through lawns and scour sidewalks to scoop-up mouthfulls of these dried, little bodies. Suddenly, the birds that had been quiet and absent for many days return in force. A mufflehead feasting frenzy begins.

Why do birds only eat dead muffleheads?

Why? Why can’t they please eat the live ones? Is there something in living muffleheads that’s unpalatable, or even toxic, to predators? Does this disappear in death? This is just one little mystery that bothers me every year. And, as I scrape down my siding yet again, I hope someone knowledgeable has an answer.

photo courtesy of…
actually i have no idea where this came from