Mischievous Bird Grasshopper

Schistocerca damnifica

Mischievous Bird Grasshopper

Mischievous bird grasshopper, photographed at Yamato Scrub Natural Area, Boca Raton, Palm Beach County, in November 2023.

You’re looking at the smallest of the so-called bird grasshoppers, the mischievous bird grasshopper, Schistocerca damnifica.

Which begs the question, how many bird grasshoppers are there? Sixteen recognized species in North America, according to the authoritative Integrated Taxonomic Information System. A site we came across called Schistocerca.org puts the global number closer to 50.

If you’re unfamiliar with the genus Schistocerca, these grasshoppers get their common name, bird, from their strong ability to fly. If you’ve spent any time in the wilds of South Florida, you’ve almost certainly seen the aerobatic antics of the American bird grasshopper, Schistocerca americana, one of the most common grasshoppers found in our region.

Mischievous bird grasshoppers — we did not make that name up — are found over most of the eastern and central United States, including Florida.

Mischievous bird grasshoppers tend to be brown, sometimes red or yellow, with speckles over the body and wings. Our guy is sort of blue-ish gray, which might be due to the green cast of the skyblue lupine leaves upon which he is munching, or it could be due to his youth. Look at how short the wings are, barely more than stubs. On an adult, they’ll extend all the way to the tip of the abdomen.

Mischievous birds will go through multiple instar stages, molting their exoskeletons each time, before becoming adults. American birds go through five or six instars, depending on conditions, before maturing.

Also identifying mischievous bird grasshoppers: a distinct ridge on the pronotum. What’s the pronotum? It’s the shoulder-shaped back plate of the first section of the grasshopper’s thorax. It sits above the insect’s first set of legs.

As noted above, mischievous birds are the smallest grasshopper of their genus, measuring between an inch to two inches in length from the tip of the head to the tip of the abdomen. Males are on the shorter end of the range.

By comparison American bird grasshoppers males range between 1.5 inches and 1.75 inches long; females between 1.6 inches and 2.1 inches.

Mischievous birds found in the south have larger wings and antennae than those in the north. The speckled pattern on the body tends to be more pronounced and the body itself is more slender.

These differences were significant enough that at one time some entomologists classified southern mischievous birds as a subspecies, S. a. calidior. But the classification never caught on, as it was also noticed that the differences between northern and southern mischievous birds were gradual (rather than distinct) and related directly to geography. The farther south (or north) one went, the greater the differences become.

Mischievous bird grasshoppers are vegetarians, like grasshoppers generally — look closely at the photos and you’ll see where our guy has been munching away on the skyblue lupine leaf. They’re also known to swarm. They rarely do significant damage to plants, however, unless they appear in large numbers.

Now we come to the strange common name, mischievous. We have no idea the origin. As to the species name, damnifica, we have no idea of its origin, either. It is a form of the Latin word, damnificus, meaning injurious, hurtful or pernicious. As we noted above, mischievous birds aren’t particularly damaging as grasshoppers go. So who knows?

While we’re at it, Schistocerca comes from Latin, meaning split tail.

Mischievous birds are also known as Carolina locusts. They are members of Acrididae, the family of short-horned grasshoppers. (The antennae are the so-called horns.)

Yamato Scrub Natural Area

Photo Gallery — Click on photo for larger image

Published by Wild South Florida, PO Box 7241, Delray Beach, FL 33482.

Photographs by David Sedore. Photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without permission.