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Ant-following birds of Central America

Ant-following birds
Red-throated Ant-Tanager (Habia fuscicauda), photographed in Belize. Photo by Ondrej Prosicky/Shutterstock

Dozens of bird species follow ant swarms in the jungle, and many of their names are frustratingly similar. Many of the ant-followers are named after familiar groups of birds that we know and love, like thrushes, wrens, vireos, and shrikes, but the tropical residents aren’t closely related to those with whom they share their names. The names are based on physical and behavioral similarities rather than genetic affiliation.

Let’s look at some of Central America’s ant-following birds from the ground up:

Antpittas almost always stay on the forest floor, hopping around in search of insect prey. They appear almost comical, with their round bodies, extremely short tails, large eyes, and long legs. There are about 50 species of antpittas, all of which live in the neotropics.

Antthrushes also spend much of their time on the ground and can often be differentiated from the antpittas by their tails, which, while still quite short, they often keep cocked up, similar to a wren. There are about a dozen antthrush species described.

Both the antpittas and antthrushes are secretive birds of the forest floor and are generally clad in rusty earth tones, making them all the more difficult to spot in the dark understory. They are more often heard than seen. If your goal is to see one of these furtive critters, you will want to study your bird calls before stepping foot in the rainforest.

Antbirds and antwrens spend less time on the ground, generally flitting about in the understory. Most are small to medium in size, often dressed in bold browns, blacks, and whites. The family Thamnophilidae includes over 200 species of antbirds, antwrens, antshrikes, and antvireos. Around 18 species are known to be specialized ant-followers (almost always found in association with army ant swarms), and many others in this family will opportunistically join mixed species foraging flocks around ant swarms.

The ant-tanagers are not as dedicated to following ants as some of the antbirds, but they are occasionally found in association with flocks following army ants. These medium-sized, reddish birds appear similar to North American tanagers but are more closely related to cardinals and grosbeaks.

Aside from the birds named after the ants, dozens of other species will join ant-following flocks to take advantage of this unique foraging opportunity, including tinamous, motmots, puffbirds, flycatchers, woodcreepers, and thrushes.

Birding Panama’s famed Pipeline Road

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Brian Magnier

Brian Magnier is a birder and naturalist who studied ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell University. He has done fieldwork on a wide range of animals around the world, including broadbills and pittas in Borneo and fairywrens in Papua New Guinea. His photos and articles have been published in Natural History Magazine, Sierra, BBC Wildlife, Tampa Bay Magazine, and Malaysian Naturalist, among others. In our May/June 2019 issue, he wrote about the joys of watching butterflies.

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