Animals that nest in termite mounds

From Tropical Topics newsletter, no. 64 December 2000, produced by Stella Martin from the Environmental Protection Agency. Click on the continuing pages above to read more; you can also download a PDF of the entire issue from this page.

parrot_termite_mound2
A hooded parrot pictured on the side of a termite mound where it has made its nest. Photo: Darren Storch

Parrot home-makers

Golden-shouldered and hooded parrots nest in termite mounds, digging into them with their beaks when they are damp and soft, during or just after the wet season. The choice of mound type is influenced by the timing of active termite construction, which varies from species to species. Parrots aim to avoid this period, when their eggs would be in danger of being incorporated into the mound by its industrious inhabitants.

Hooded parrots, which live in southern and eastern Arnhem Land, use the bulbous mounds of the spinifex termite (Nasutitermes triodiae ). These termites do most of their building in humid periods before and after the wet season but not during it when torrential rain makes the mud too soft. This is the period used by the parrots, which generally begin laying between January and March.

Golden-shouldered parrots, found in a small area of the Cape York Peninsula, begin laying their eggs somewhat later, in March. They avoid the bulbous mounds where post-wet construction is under way, instead targeting the conical, ‘witches hat’, mounds, of Amitermes scopulus , a termite which by that time has completed most of its building. Even so, eggs laid early in the season are sometimes glued down by the termites. Inexperienced birds sometimes attempt to excavate holes in the sides of magnetic mounds but soon find themselves coming out the other side of these thin-walled constructions. Nonetheless, a few manage to dig tunnels from the narrow end, and nest successfully.

The termites repair the hole after nesting is finished. However, although no sign of damage can be seen on the surface of the mounds, the interior of at least some takes longer to be restored. The parrots generally avoid mounds which have been used previously, giving the termites at least five or six years between invasions.

Mounds and kingfishers

Termite mounds are used as nesting sites by most Australian kingfishers. To create a hole initially, the birds sometimes fly head on at the hard mound and occasionally die from the impact. Once completed, the burrow may be left vacant for a while to allow the termites to seal off the tunnel on the inside and protect their nest from dust and drying air. Most kingfishers also use tree hollows and/ or stream banks but the buff-breasted paradise kingfisher (left) chooses only termite mounds. These birds return from New Guinea in early November each year, to nest in north-eastern Queensland, between the tip of Cape York and Townsville. Generally choosing ground-level mounds, they spend three or four weeks creating a tunnel about 150mm long leading to a chamber about 130mm high.

Geckos, pythons, beetles and mice

One species of gecko (Gehyra pilbara) lives inside bulbous termite mounds from the Pilbara Plateau (WA) to the Tanami Desert (NT). At night these geckos move on to the surface of the mounds but during the day they live in tunnels inside.

Certain pythons (Liasis spp.) have been found in termite mounds, chasing and feeding on the geckos there.

A large number of beetles live in termite nests, some of them producing a secretion which is eaten by the termites. Some of these, as larvae, are looked after by the termite workers as if they are colony members. Other larvae ride on the termites’ backs. One beetle species is able to expand its abdomen, projecting it over its head, so that it mimics a termite worker. Other invertebrates living in termite nests include silverfish, bugs and earthworms, which retreat into termite mounds when the ground becomes saturated.

Female lace monitor lizards (Varanus varius) excavate nesting holes in termite mounds in trees and on the ground. After they have deposited their eggs, they leave the termites to seal up the hole again, cementing the eggs in. The constant temperature maintained by the termites incubates the eggs and it is thought that the mothers return to the nest at hatching time to help their offspring escape. The young are a bright cobalt blue with yellow stripes. Goannas are also attracted to birds’ nests in termite mounds. Tree goannas (Varanus tristis) have been observed eating golden shouldered parrot nestlings and one was found in a hooded parrots’ nest with a stomach full of eggs.

The fat-tailed antechinus (Pseudantechinus macdonnellensis), which is found in drier areas from south-west Queensland to WA, lives in bulbous termite mounds of the spinifex termite in some areas.

Nesting holes provide opportunities for yet more animals. A particular moth,Trisyntopa scatophaga , lays its eggs in the nests of golden-shouldered parrots. The larvae feed on the young parrots’ droppings and the remains of any nestlings which die. Although this keeps the nest clean the moths can be harmful. Their pupae, situated near the entrance, have been known to block attempts by the chicks to leave the nest. The moths have not been found in any other nests so it is thought that they depend on golden-shouldered parrots and may, therefore, be just as endangered as their hosts are.

When fires sweep through the landscapes, termite mounds act as shelters for animals such as quolls, bandicoots, rodents, goannas, frill-necked.

The maggots of blowflies have also been found feeding on droppings and dead young and green frogs have been known to share the nesting hole which makes an ideal sounding chamber! After the young chicks have left the nest, crickets, spiders (including redbacks) and casemoth larvae have been found in the hole, before it was refilled by the termites. A northern quoll was found taking a snooze in a disused hooded parrot nest.

 

 

Articles

Paradise falters for seed-eating birds

This article by Don Franklin of CDU outlines concerns about the decline in seed eating bird populations [read more...]