Conservation-It Could Be Made Into A Movie By: Kevin Williams, Grundy County Conservation Director
June 6, 2014
I had quite an experience over the weekend. One that I wish not to experience again, although I fear that I may. It was like a bad dream or a horror movie. Friday evening my son, Seth and his family, were up to stay the weekend. We, of course, had to make a visit over to the pigeon cage to see the doves and the pigeons. To our shock, there were multiple dead and dying doves in their fly pen. Almost all of the dead birds had open bloodied patches especially around the head and neck. As we stood there, we were being attacked by these annoying little flies. They would swarm around our heads and their bite was painful on the neck and earlobes and such. So we retreated to the house for shelter from the flies. They weren’t big. Larger than fruit flies but not a lot larger. A trip out to the pen the next morning found more dead doves. In all, more than a dozen. I hadn’t experienced anything like this in all my years of raising birds short of the mass deaths that will happen with an owl or weasel getting in the cage. But these were tiny flies doing the dirtywork. As I watched one dove twitching on the perch, I could see the dark, black flies appear and then disappear again into the feathers. The birds were literally being tortured to death. I went to the garage and got the jug of Home Defense – one of those sprays you can use around the outside and the inside of the home to help eliminate insect pests. I literally misted the birds with the product. I didn’t know if it would harm them but I knew what the continued biting of the flies would do and it couldn’t be worse, I reasoned. An internet search confirmed that they were black flies, also called buffalo gnats. Another name for them is turkey gnat and they are small, bloodsucking insects slightly less than 1/4 inch long with a stout-body and hump-backed appearance. That hump is where the name buffalo gnat comes from. And I assume turkey gnat because of the extreme bother they can be to such a bird with so much exposed head and throat skin. They are most common along rivers and streams during late spring and early summer. Black flies live as larvae in shallow, clear, fast-running water in rivers and streams. The black, spindle-shaped larvae live on the river bottom attached to rocks and other submerged objects and feed on tiny bits of organic matter, algae and protozoa. Larvae transform in the water to adult flies that rise to the water surface in a bubble of gas. Only the female black flies are bloodsuckers. Their bite is extremely painful, and the injection of a venom into the skin causes intense itching, local swelling and soreness. All exposed parts of the body are subject to attack. Well, now I knew a lot more about them but nothing about controlling the problem that I was (am) experiencing. That’s unfortunately because nobody knows much that can be done. Unlike mosquitoes that prefer to feed at dawn and at dusk, black flies prefer to feed in the middle of the day and prefer bright, sunny, warm, and windless days. Sunday was very windy and the flies were almost non-existent then. The wind was giving them a reprieve. According to Ken Holscher, Iowa State University Entomologist, the bite of the buffalo gnat often produces in humans swelling and itching worse than a mosquito bite. It is a combination of blood loss and saliva injected by the biting female gnat causing fatal anaphylactic shock that proves fatal for the birds. And according to Holscher, we have seen the last of the buffalo gnats, which reproduce just one generation per year. “They all come out at the same time, stick around for two to three weeks, and they are all gone at the same time,” he said. I’ll continue to make attempts at controls around the pen and hope that the next two weeks pass quickly with a good share of windy days.
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