Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.

Black flies in silent attacks

Posted by: Jim Williams under Bird biology, Bird travels Updated: July 14, 2014 - 9:13 AM

I have Black Fly bites, four of them large enough to be seen from across the room. This doesn't make me exceptional. It does make me itch. I was in Caledonia Saturday for a meeting of a Quail Forever group, devoted conservationists focused on Northern Bobwhite. Minnesota has a few of those birds in Houston County. We were sitting in a farmyard at picnic tables beneath large shade treess, all very pleasant. I noticed a small flying insect on the table in front of me, and smacked it. Dead but intact, it offered close examination. I thought I could recognize the humped shape of a Black Fly, the shape that gave them one of their several folk names -- Buffalo gnat. Speaking to the group briefly about birds I mentioned the Black Fly problem in central and northern parts of out state. While I was talking a cell phone rang, a member of the small audience having a short conversation. He happened to be a veteranarian. The call, he told us, came from a local DNR biologist who had just arranged transportion to The Raptor Center in St. Paul for a Bald Eagle chick so bothered by the flies that it crawled out of its nest and was injured in a fall to the ground. There was some surprise that the flies were attacking birds way down there in Houston County. A few hours later Thurman Tucker, active QF member and advocate for the species disappeared from lunch. Unannounced, he was hurrying home to Minneapolis, so many fly bites on his face that one of his eyes was almost swelling shut. My bites weren't apparent until I got home, and my wife took a look at me. The one on my left temple is the size of a half dollar coin, the one inside my left elbow quarter-size, the bites on the back of my neck no more than a nickel. No itching last night, but they itch like blazes. I felt no bite nor any insect on my skin while being bitten, an absolute stealth attack. There were no swarms around our heads, thankfully, like the swarms seen on and around heads of Common Loons, one of the bird species under particular attack. The fly I killed on the table was about 1/8th of an inch long. I wonder if bites received by birds swell, and do they itch? Is it the attack itself which drives birds to distraction and death or is it the aftermath, the swelling and itch? 

Monday morning -- I also wondered about the impact of the files on domestic and wild mammals. I await information from the University of Minnesota Extension Service. I did visit with a vet in Duluth, assuming that the flies have been or are as much as a problem there as anywhere. The doctor with whom I visited said she had seen no cases of noteworthy response to fly bites on pet animals. I found remarks concerning livestock on a web site in Europe (these flies are everywhere). Swarms of flies are said to send cattle and horses into panic-driven runs. Hundreds of bites on one animal can produce enough stress and/or allergic reactions to cause death. Flies can gather in nostrils and throats in numbers sufficient to suffocate the victim. I can find no such local reports. The good news is that the flies have a life span of about a month, hatching basically an event occurring broadly at the same time. We are soon to find respite. 

Here, from the Internet, is a photo of a black fly, hardly looking like the terror it can be.

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