Ticks are blood-sucking, parasitic arachnids that feed on the blood of animals, including people. In the short term, ticks are a massive pain and can cause irritation for you, your children, and your pets. Over the long term, they’re actually very dangerous. This is because ticks are hosts for parasites of their own – disease-causing bacteria that they can then transmit to you! Some tick-borne diseases you may have heard of include Lyme disease, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
While ticks get their meals from humans and other animals, there are plenty of creatures out there that get their meals from ticks! Almost every arthropod has some sort of predator – either other arthropods, or bigger animals like birds, amphibians, or mammals.
Here’s a rundown on what animals eat ticks as part of a normal, healthy diet.
Animals that Eat Ticks
Predators are usually generalists, which is a scientific word that just means they are not picky eaters. So a lot of the usual animals you can imagine eating insects will go for ticks as well if that’s what’s around. The thing that stops ticks from being eaten by more animals is their size. They’re too small for some predators, but they are just the right size for many others.
Frogs and toads eat flies in cartoons, but they’re not very picky in real life. They’ll eat plenty of small insects, and also arachnids like spiders and ticks. With certain toads, engorged female ticks have even been used as bait to capture them!
Frogs aren’t very picky about their diet, but they are a bit picky about where they eat. Frogs are found in and around water, whereas toads tend to spend a bit more time on land. So frogs are a bit less likely to eat ticks unless they find them looking for hosts by on foliage close to water. Toads stand a better chance of running into a tick since they will go inland a bit.
Most birds who eat insects will also snag the occasional tick. As far as flying birds, it’s mostly smaller birds who will do this, since they go for smaller prey to begin with. Smaller birds can also pick ticks off the bigger animals hosting them like deer or cows. But a larger bird that usually engorges itself on huge dragonflies might not be very satisfied with a tiny tick.
There’s even a group of two bird species called oxpeckers that feeds primarily on ticks and other parasites on animals. But unfortunately, you’re unlikely to encounter them in your garden unless you are reading this post from the African savanna.
The real tick-munchers are the birds who don’t fly and get their food from the ground.
Chickens will eat ticks on vegetation close to the ground and will even pluck them directly from livestock. So they are definitely a solid choice for a tick-eating animal for any farm situation. Plus they’re so darn cute.
The helmeted guineafowl (Numida meleagris) has been a longtime strategy for controlling ticks, and for good reason. Studies show that these birds happily control ticks, including the deer ticks that spread Lyme disease. And a plus side of guineafowl is that they tend to be less destructive than chickens, causing less damage to your yard or garden as they feed.
They may not be pretty (to most – I think they’re cute!), but opossums are ferocious tick-eating machines. The brilliance in their strategy is that they wait until the ticks latch on as they slink across the ground, then eat the ticks while grooming.
Rick Ostfeld and his colleagues at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem studies found that opossums can kill up to 95% of the ticks that try to feed on them, as many as 5,000 per tick season. This phenomenon where hosts of a pest end up killing the pest is known as an ecological trap.
Squirrels and Chipmunks
Opossums aren’t the only ecological trap for ticks identified in that Ostfeld study. Squirrels and chipmunks are also great traps for ticks, eating most of the ticks that try to feed on them.
The brilliance of these ecological traps is that these organisms actually encounter a lot of ticks, which isn’t always true for predators. Predators like the birds and frogs may eat ticks, but they will happily eat a ton of other things as well. Normal predators don’t really seek out ticks to kill. But ecological traps just kill any tick that comes their way. This is why they tend to kill more ticks in the long run.
The arthropod world is a vicious battleground but it is also small enough that we don’t really notice it. Insects, arachnids, and other arthropods are constantly hunting and killing each other.
Predator-prey relationships in arthropods are a bit hard to track because there are so many complex factors that influence what they eat in the wild. So scientists don’t really know the extent to which arthropod predators really control tick populations.
As far as ticks go, there are dozens of different studies that report arthropods eating ticks of various species, including deer ticks and their relatives. The most common types of tick predators are beetles (most often the family Carabidae, which is also one of the most common families), spiders, who tend to eat whatever falls into their web, and ants (family Formicidae).
Interestingly, ticks also sometimes eat each other. Though this does not happen all the time – usually when the ticks are especially hungry and there’s no other food around.
Can Natural Predators Keep Ticks Away?
Yes and no. Natural predators are an important part of making sure that tick populations don’t spiral out of control, but this is true for any organism. In truth, natural predators are something we should encourage, but they aren’t a good primary strategy for keeping ticks away. To make a noticeable dent in the tick population, you’d have to release many individual predators into the environment. This is unrealistic, dangerous, and often illegal.
Laws against releasing large predators aren’t random. For many years, biological control scientists happily used larger, vertebrate predators to control pests – and the ecological consequences in some cases were a disaster. One of the most famous examples is the cane toad in Australia.
The cane toad is native to South America but was released into Australia to control a beetle that attacks sugar cane, but nobody thought ahead to realize that the cane toad feeds at night while the beetles are active during the day. The result was a lot of new toads, but no luck killing the beetles. In fact, now biological control scientists are working on controlling the cane toad! How’s that for irony?
Biological control experts are also currently working on projects to control ticks, but they aren’t using predators to do it. The most promising biological control agents for ticks are actually pathogenic bacteria and fungi, not animal predators.
In general, you should leave biological control releases to the experts – they spend years testing and evaluating their subjects to make sure there won’t be any major ecological consequences. In the meantime, focus on keeping deer away from your yard. They are by far the biggest source of ticks that cause diseases. We have plenty of strategies for tick control that you can read about, and some of them are as easy as planting some new plants!