Cochise County Insects: The Gray Bird Grasshopper, Schistocerca Nitens

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Schistocerca nitens, as it turns out, is one big freaking grasshopper. Better known as the Gray Bird grasshopper, it’s probably no stranger to Cochise County, but this October (2014) is the first time we’ve noticed them since moving to our southern Arizona acreage in April of 2009. At three inches or so in length, you’d think the females (larger than the males) would have come to our attention before this.

On the other hand, this has been a rather oddball year for bugs. As in, there haven’t been nearly as many six-leggeds hopping, creeping, crawling, and flying around as we’ve come to expect.

Not that we’re precisely “bugless” this year, but the Hulks of the grasshopper world known as Horse Lubbers or Mexican Generals have provided only occasional sightings. Not a single flying ant queen has penetrated our window screen defenses to assault either my head or the nearest lamp during the evenings. Flies have been positively rare, and so on and so forth. Which is a good thing; we are not complaining.

With that lesser bug density, though, the Gray Birds really stand out.

The first one to beg to be photographed was a female (judging from the size) who landed atop the mud-spattered hood of our GMC pickup truck.

Gray Bird grasshopper,  Schistocerca nitens, photographed atop the hood of a truck in Cochise County, Arizona.

Gray Bird grasshopper, Schistocerca nitens, photographed atop the hood of a truck in Cochise County, Arizona.

The literature states that Schistocerca nitens hoppers generally operate as solitaries “but occasionally swarm”–and that when they do swarm, they’re capable of doing as much harm to crops and gardens as the desert locusts to which they’re closely related. Fortunately, the individuals we’ve seen in this neck of the desert have been loners, big and homely but not at all threatening.

And wow, can these suckers fly. Which is why they’re called Gray Bird grasshoppers, apparently. Amazingly, this species can migrate for up to 300 miles at a stretch over open ocean.

Not that we have a lot of ocean down here next to the Mexican border, but one grasshopper that flew over to land on the porch wall next to the Border Fort’s front door…well, that hopper was no hopper at all. Its huge hind legs were completely 100%…missing! And yet, when the hopperless hopper decided it was time to move on, its powerful wings launched it through the air and on toward its next destination without any problem at all.

How did the Gray Bird lose its legs? Lunch for a predator who missed the rest of the insect? Birth defect, sort of a Thalidomide baby of the bug world?

No clue, but it still managed to function. Amazing.

A freak of nature or a survivor of an attack by a predator?  We'll never know, but one way or the other, this still-functional Gray Bird grasshopper is lacking both huge rear hopping legs.

A freak of nature or a survivor of an attack by a predator? We’ll never know, but one way or the other, this still-functional Gray Bird grasshopper is lacking both huge rear hopping legs.

According to cabi.org, this species is primarily a New World grasshopper.

It is native to southwestern North America, Central America and northern South America. It was first reported as invasive in the Hawaiian archipelago in 1964 and is now present on all the main Hawaiian islands. S. nitens is solitary and non-migratory, but under certain conditions can form swarms or outbreaks and cause damage to crops and native plant species….

Okay, so that’s a little confusing. It’s “non-migratory” according to that site but capable of flying great distances–up to 300 miles nonstop–whenever it feels like it. Huh. If you could fly 300 miles at a pop, wouldn’t you migrate from time to time? I’m betting I would.

That said, we’ve not seen a high number of these hoppers in our area, but we have seen them scattered around in many different places. They’ve shown up on our property, at our son’s place 15 miles up the road, across from the Sierra Vista Mall in the Golden Dragon parking lot, and of course outside of Walmart.

Everything seems to show up at Walmart sooner or later.

4 thoughts on “Cochise County Insects: The Gray Bird Grasshopper, Schistocerca Nitens

  1. Speaking of things that show up at Wal-mart, I was on the way home from there last night. I pulled out onto the street and felt something fall on my foot. I jumped and reached down to see what it was, and it jumped. I screamed, Katy laughed because she saw it land up on the dash. It was fine once I knew what it was, but I do not like unknowns jumping on my feet in the dark and unaccessible floorboards, when I am driving.

  2. Yeah, it’s a bit of a homely critter, all right. From our perspective as humans, anyway; could be a beauty pageant winner in its own group for all we know. As for the lack of back legs, I had to stare at the photo two or three times before I could believe what I was seeing. Hadn’t even noticed when I was taking the pic.

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