Locusts and Starlings
"The Destroying Armies of God"
Until 1921, it was thought that the locust--big brother of the grasshopper--came in two distinct
kinds. There were (according to scientific opinion) solitary locusts, which were lethargic
sluggish things, flying at night, prone to avoiding the company of their own kind . . . and then
there were plague locusts.
Only about a dozen grasshopper species have the potential to swarm in plagues.
They do not look like solitary locusts. They come in different colors, their size and
even their shape differs; their heartbeat is faster, they are active and nervous. They fly during the
day, and they do not avoid other locusts. Even their nymphs look different.
But . . . solitary locusts and plague locusts can both belong to the same species. They change
from generation to generation: solitaries can lay a plague generation, and plague locusts after
several generations can suddenly revert to solitary phase.
In recessions (a scientific term) the locust follows a solitary habit. But from time to time, its
behavior and appearance both change. It emerges from recession. It begins to congregate en
masse. By the hundreds. By the thousands. By the millions. (The density of a thick swarm can
mass up to eighty million individuals per square kilometer.) Each locust can eat its weight in
greenery daily. True, this is only about two grams, but multiply by several hundred million and
you have a problem. For these are the locusts of the Bible, whose plagues could devastate entire
The largest insect swarms ever observed are credited to the locust.
Well . . . in 1954, a swarm of Schistocerca gregaria--the desert locust--invaded Kenya. It was
estimated to cover two hundred square kilometers of land. Its density was fifty million locusts
per square kilometer. Its total estimated size was ten billion locusts.
Such swarms have been observed to fly 5000 kilometers in ten days. During one migration in
1988, a swarm migrated from West Africa to the Caribbean, straight across the Atlantic ocean.
Another swarm, in 1954, was observed flying from West Africa to the British Isles.
Other important locust species include the African Migratory Locust (Locusta migratoria migratorioides);
the Oriental Migratory Locust (Locusta migratoria manilensis) of South-East Asia; the Red Locust
(Nomadacris septemfasciata) of Eastern Africa; the Brown Locust (Locustana pardalina) of Southern Africa;
the Moroccan Locust (Dociostaurus maroccanus); the Bombay Locust (Nomadacris succincta)
of South-West to South-East Asia; the Australian Plague Locust (Chortoicetes terminifera); and the
Tree Locusts (Anacridium sp.) of Africa, the Mediterranean and the Near East.
(This information was taken from the online sources on locusts maintained by the Desert Locust
Information Service (a department of the United Nations), and the University of Florida "Book of
Insect Records" (department of entomology and nematology. Further details come from the
Locusts in the desert of Kuwait: according to H. R. P. Dickson, who grew up among the Bedouin
during the first half of the twentieth century, there were two species of locusts. One was red--Nomadacris septemfasciata, the carmine locust, called yakhakh by the Bedouin--and the other was
the common desert locust, Schistocerca gregaria, called the jarad. The jarad was yellow with
brown markings. Only female locusts were eaten by the Bedouin of the desert, and red female
locusts were preferred. The Bedouin family who helped raise Dickson fried their locusts in butter
with salt, or else boiled them; he says they tasted like roast chestnuts. The Bedouin of the desert
would catch locusts, when they swarmed, in such numbers that every tent-roof would be covered
with dead and drying insects; every cloth, every mat, every blanket would be spread, heaped
with a harvest of locusts. Every container available would be filled to overflowing with locusts,
and every Bedouin would gorge to repletion, till they lost their appetites and fed the remainder to
At the same time, every kind of desert animal would eat as many locusts as it could catch. The
birds feasted, the Bedouin dogs feasted, the Arab horses feasted . . . even the monitor lizards of
the desert would be out, bolting down locusts as fast as they could swallow.
The swarms which passed through Arabia followed a distinct migratory path. They flew north
out of Africa, from Abyssinia to Yaman, and then took one of two routes onward--either to Baluchistan and
India via the South Arabian seaboard, or else up through the north-eastern tracts of
Arabia toward Iraq and Iran.
The following account comes from Dickson's diaries for the years 1929-1932:
In 1929, vast swarms of flying locusts ravaged Arabia through the spring and autumn. The
autumn rains killed off great numbers of them, but not before grazing had been devastated
everywhere. Then more locusts appeared in the winter, flying from the direction of Hasa in still
greater swarms. Many sheep died, their pastures stripped bare by ravenous insects.
In February 1930, alarming reports began to circulate: further locust hordes were appearing in the south. These were
jarad--Schistocerca gregaria, brown in solitary state but black and yellow when swarming--and they
were flightless nymphs, or dibba . . . a horror still more dreaded than the winged adults.
By the 10th of March, it was known that locusts were hatching throughout southern Arabia,
everywhere that a patch of warm sand could be found. By the 28th, an army of black crawling
nymphs was reported ten miles south of Kuwait town. Further hordes were converging on
Jahrah, the oasis town twenty miles to the west.
On April 7th, Dickson drove south of Kuwait town. He found wingless locusts advancing
northward, in an undulating carpet four miles long and two miles deep. They were so thick on
the ground that the tires of his car ploughed lanes in them, and the insects crushed by his passage
were instantly devoured by the survivors. Where they had passed, the countryside had been
stripped to the desert sand. Even quite large bushes--three feet high or more--had completely
vanished, as if never there.
On April 11th, Dickson visited Jahrah. The entire oasis was being overrun by voracious locusts.
The villagers were busy digging trenches and setting lines of fire, and covering the walls of their
gardens with newspapers, strips of tin and glazed paper--none of which were doing the least bit of
good. Before Dickson's eyes, the oasis was being stripped bare, and by the time the locusts
finished with them, the lush date palms were so ravaged that they looked like the aftermath of a
He estimated the attacking swarm to have a five-mile front with unknown depth. The locusts
were in two forms: black nymphs of two weeks' growth, and month-old dibba whose black was
banded with bright yellow.
On April 22nd, the first locusts reached Kuwait. They came over the wall of the town in a yellow-black wave, first overwhelming the gardens which rimmed Kuwait town proper, and then
advancing on the houses. They swarmed over every building and crawled in through every
conceivable crevice. They ate the carpets. They ate the curtains. For five days, they infested
the whole town. At the end of those five days, they grew wings, took off and vanished to the
north. In this process, several million probably fell into the sea and drowned--but their loss was
insignificant compared to the myriads that survived.
In March, Kuwait was again visited by locusts. Large flights were reported by the 24th of the
month, and during the 28th, 29th, and 30th dense clouds passed directly over the town of Kuwait.
All were flying north, and it was hoped they were passing through too late in the
spring for egg-laying. It was a vain hope. By the 19th of April, hatching locust nymphs appeared
simultaneously all over the state of Kuwait. Instantly, these too began to crawl north.
By April 30th, the first crawlers reached the outskirts of Kuwait town itself. They numbered in
the thousands. They settled into the gardens south of the town, and began to strip them bare.
On the 7th of May, this vanguard was reinforced by the main army. It numbered in the billions, a
solid wave of yellow-and-black, and it surged over the town walls, Dickson wrote in his diary,
"much as molten lava tips over the edge of a crater of a volcano and progresses slowly down the
side of the mountain." The plague infested the whole town, from one end to the other. In the
bazaar, locusts devoured hundreds of yards of silk and cotton. In the houses, they appeared in
every kitchen; they appeared, dead, in every dish at every meal; they ate the people's food, their clothing,
their bedclothes, and even the furniture. They bit when provoked, in a most unpleasant way. There
was a wild story of a Kuwaiti mother, who killed her baby in mercy after it was
mostly devoured by hungry locusts.
Finally relief came in the shape of a gale-force wind which blew from the north-east for fifteen
hours straight. The dibba army was driven out of the town in a westerly direction, and along the
southern shore of the bay. Dickson wrote: "Countless millions of the insects must in the process have been
drowned in the sea, but the plague was removed, and the exhausted people of Kuwait breathed
freely once more."
In February 1932, a flight of locusts passed directly over Kuwait town, very high up. The host
took two and a half hours to pass overhead, and darkened the sun like an eclipse. But that was
all that happened. The swarm did not land, and a visiting locust expert said that infestations
followed three-year cycles and predicted that the next several years should be relatively safe.
And he was right: through until 1937 and past, no more locusts appeared in the state of Kuwait.
Source: A Bedouin Boyhood, by H. R. P. Dickson.
Eating locusts, from the diary of Mr Blunt (quoted in Lady Wentworth's The Arabian Horse):
"It is, I think, not generally known how excellent locusts are as food ... the red locust--which is, I believe, the female--is the best eating, and should be plain boiled. No further
preparation is necessary beyond pulling off the long legs; then the insect is taken by the wings, his
head dipped in salt, and he is eaten just as he is. In taste he resembles green wheat, having a very
delicate vegetable flavour. Fried he is less good. It is, however, friend or rather dried over the
fire, that locusts are given as food to cattle. Horses thrive on them, and nearly every animal in the
desert devours them. Our dogs caught and ate them greedily, and the camels will occasionally
munch them with their pasture. Buzzards follow their line of flight; bustards, desert larks, hawks,
and even the smallest birds pursue them; while a hyena I shot was found to be full of them.
Locusts should be gathered in the morning, while the dew is still on their wings, as later they are
difficult to secure."
Eating locusts, from Lady Anne Blunt's personal journal:
"Locusts are now a regular portion of the day's provision with us and are really an excellent article of diet. After trying them in various ways we have come to the conclusion that they are best plain boiled. The long hoppy legs must be pulled off, and the locust held by the wings dipped in salt and eaten. As to flavour, it tastes of vegetable rather than of fish or flesh, not unlike green wheat in England, and to us it supplies the place of vegetables, of which we are in much need. The red locust is better eating than the green one. ... For catching locusts the morning is the time when they are half benumbed by the cold and their wings are damp with dew so that they cannot fly; they may be found clustered in hundreds under the desert bushes and gathered without trouble, merely shovelled into a bag or basket. Later on the sun dries their wings and they are difficult to capture, having intelligence enough to keep just out of reach when pursued. Flying, they look extremely like mayflies being carried side on to the wind. They can steer themselves about as much as flying fish do and can alight when they like ... This year they are all over the country in enormous armies by day and huddled in regiments under every bush by night. They devour everything vegetable, and are devoured by everything animal, desert larks and bustards; ravens, hawks and buzzards. We passed today through flocks of ravens and buzzards sitting on the ground gorged with them. The camels munch them with their food, the greyhounds run snapping after them all day long, eating as many as they can catch. The Bedouins give them to their horses and Awwad says that this year many tribes have nothing to eat just now but locusts and camels' milk; thus the locust in some measure makes amends for being a pestilence by being himself consumed.
"... The ketterin <?> are this year in great distress as there was no autumn rain, and until a
month ago nothing that horses can eat. They are without corn or even dates and but for the
locusts, which have been abundant all the winter, they and their horses must have starved.
Indeed, locusts are still their main article of food for man as well as beast. Great piles of these
insects dried over the fire can be seen in every tent."
Locust-contaminated wells in the desert of Iran (19th century). If a swarm of locusts finds their
way into a well, they can fall in and become trapped; as often happens, many thousands of them
perish this way, rotting and poisoning the water. Woe betide the traveler without forethought,
who carries only enough water to last to the next stage! He may find the next well completely
filled with locusts.
A local man's story of leading a large caravan across the desert at a time when all the wells on the
road were filled with locusts: their water gave out, and they had no choice but to draw water at a
well contaminated (like all the rest) with decaying locusts. The well was about three meters
deep. The men stopped up their noses with onions, and descended the well one by one, to scoop
up the foul juice at the bottom (using the copper kettle they cooked with) and sending it up one
kettle-full at a time by means of two ropes. The kettle was emptied out at the top and sent back
down again; after the well had slowly been cleansed, it filled up with clear water which could be
drunk. The man working in the evil-smelling confines of the well wore a rope round his waist, so
that when he was overcome, he could tug on the rope and be hauled back up into fresh air.
Nevertheless two of the caravan workers fainted without signaling, collapsed and died in the foul
air before they could be pulled to safety. Source: Arminius Vambery.
A plague of jeraad or locusts descending upon the plains of Northern Africa (1800 AD): Overnight they could fall upon a Garden of Eden and transform it into a wilderness, and yet by morning not a single insect would be seen. Only, every leaf and vine and stalk of corn was eaten. They even devoured the bark from the trees. Where they settled, the face of the earth resembled newly ploughed soil, brown with insects which crawl two and three deep; as horses strode over them, they rose waist-high and then settle back to the ground. Those which were flying, though, dashed themselves into the faces of the riders, like blind things.
The Arabs said that the insects followed the sultan jeraad, the king of the locusts, and flew wherever their king went; though they blanketed one side of a river three deep and devoured every green thing, they would not cross the running water till their king flew first.
Poor people went out locusting, for there was nothing else to eat after the insects depleted their crops. The bushes were covered with locusts, and the hunters merely took off their haiks and tossed them over top, and then collected the locusts in a sack. They boiled them for a quarter of an hour, then fried them in a pan with pepper, salt and vinegar, and ate them just like that--throwing away the wings, legs and head, as Europeans might do with prawns. They were considered highly palatable.
Source: An Account of Timbuctoo and Housa, by James Grey Jackson
Locusts of Spain (1845). These were rife in Extremadura province. They had gaudy, delicate,
rose-colored wings that rustled like dry leaves, and appeared to be painted by the sun. The Arabs
imagined that written upon the wings of every marauding locust was the legend: "We are the
destroying armies of Allah." Source: Handbook For Spain, by Richard Ford
Locusts in Russia (1812). Gryllus Italicus, the small locust with the rose-colored wings, was frequently destructive to the vineyards of the Crimea. This was the same locust which frequently commited depredations in Spain. In Russia it appeared annually across the arid southern regions, from the European boundary as far as the Irtish and the mountains of Alta. However only in some years were the hordes large enough to be pernicious. Eg. after the severe winter of 1799-1800, vast swarms of locusts ravaged the Crimea, flying everywhere and stripping all vegetation wherever they alighted, and the grape-vines especially they destroyed with their ravenous hunger.
Their habits were as follows (observed by the naturalist, Pallas). In 1800, after a hard winter, their wingless brood appeared in great numbers in early May. They swarmed all over the Crimea, going hither and thither at random; some of the swarms when resting covered the ground in a curtain of black, upwards of one hundred fathoms in length and from forty to fifty in width--certainly containing many millions of insects. In serene warm weather, they became active as soon as the morning dew evaporated. At first a few were seen running about, then the whole swarm rose from its resting-place and began to scuttle all in one direction like a migration of ants, not leaping but crawling steadily onward. If attacked or disturbed, they sprang away in every direction but soon collected and resumed their previous course. In this manner they marched till evening, sometimes crossing a hundred fathoms of land in the course of a day.
They prefered to march along roads and open tracts, but would penetrate through bushes and across ditches; their way could only be impeded by brooks or canals, for they appeared to be terrified by every kind of moisture. However they would creep out on overhanging branches and thus cross streams without drowning. Towards sunset they gradually gathered in a thick mass to rest overnight.
Woe betide the farmsteads upon which they settled, if the next day was overcast or cold! In these unfortunate weathers (or if it rains) they would not travel; then they ravaged the entire area, stripping off every green leaf, and after the weeds and foliage were gone they stripped all the bark off the grape-vines and the buds off the fruit-trees. Neither orchard nor vineyard was safe from them. All that was left when they went on, were chalk-white twigs bare of any growth.
The same fate awaited those places where they settled to cast their skins. As soon as they cast their last skins and gain wings, they dispersed somewhat but were still apt to swarm. On attaining their perfect form, they began to mate and the males died shortly after. The females continued to fly about and devour all green things through July and August, by which time they had laid their eggs and vanished. The deficiency of starlings and other insect-eating birds in 1800 was surely one of the causes of the Crimea hosts.
After they began to fly, sometimes vast numbers were blown off-course into bodies of water and there they drowned, washing in heaps to the shore afterwards; their only real enemies were the wind, the sea, and the birds of the air. They prefered eminences with loose soil to lay their eggs, first boring holes in the ground with their posteriors and then laying in the holes.
They ate weeds and bitter vegetables; among them asparagus, geraniums, millefoils, flax, centaurea, salvia and cerinthe. They ate grape-vines and the leaves and flowers of fruit-trees. But among the things they did not eat were most grasses, nor did they touch some species of grain; they would not touch millet, nor the sedge which is the favorite food of the great erratic locust. Nor would they eat clematis, mentha sylvestris, artemisia maritima, or various other plants. Only after devouring all else would they stoop to eating caper-buds, the beta cycla, or the various euphorbias.
The gryllus Italicus with its blackish-colored larva was the most numerous in the Crimea.
There were also such species as the verricivorus, viridissimus, and others which lacked wings.
The gryllus coerulescens is winged, but not so numerous as the Italicus. The great erratic locust
swarmed thickly from the banks of the Dneiper, and in 1800 spread all across New Russia and
parts of Little Russia.
Source: P. S. Pallas, The Southern Provinces of the Russian Empire, 2 vols. originally published
Ararat larks, Pastor roseus, the Rose-Colored Pastor: this is a species of rose-red starling. Flocks of them inhabit the Caucasus mountains in May. The whole body is rose-colored, with the head, wings and tail black. John Baddeley, author of "Rugged Flanks of Caucausus" observed them killing and devouring locusts with incredible speed, pausing only from time to time to fly to any nearby body of water (perhaps to clean their beaks?) and then fly back and kill, kill, kill and gulp down still more locusts.
These were locally called the "birds of Mahomet" and in Georgia, the Tarbys; the local Greeks, Armenians and Tartars said that to secure the coming of the Tarbys (ie that the red-and-black starlings may banish locusts from the vicinity) one must get a jar of blessed water from a well near the monastery of Etchmiadzin; the monks blessed it, and then it was taken to the town in question; the bearer who brought it must never set it on the ground, not during his entire journey. During halts, he hung it in a tree or set it on a wall. Upon its arrival, it was again blessed and sprinkled upon some locust-ravaged field, and within two days (the superstition went) the Tarbys would come flying up in clouds.
These rose-starlings pursued the locusts in migration; in May of 1865, they invaded Tiflis in the hundreds of thousands. They nested freely even in the heart of cities, for Muslims and Christians alike held them in high regard, as if to shoot one was to invite disaster. If in Tiflis the locusts arrived with spring weather and the rose-starlings did not soon follow, a deputation was sent to fetch water from St Jacob's spring or well. Such a deputation was sent in 1865, and seems to have done its work too well. In 1825, during the height of the locust-and-starling season, large pans of water were set out for the Tiflis starlings to bath in - something they were fond of, for killing locusts befouled them with sticky fluids.
There were "starling-springs" at Shiraz and Qazvin, and at Kashan. In Aleppo, Zem-Zem water from Mecca (that is, from the holy well in that city) was used for the same purpose.
In Smyrna, the rose-starling was called the Holy-bird in May when it killed locusts, and the Devil-bird in July when it made havoc in orchards and vineyards.
Pliny (Natural History, x.39) probably referred to the rose-starling when he wrote, "Those birds are called seleucides, which are sent by Jupiter at the prayers offered up to him by the inhabitants of Mount Casius, when the locusts are ravaging their crops of corn. Whence they come, or whither they go, has never yet been ascertained, as, in fact, they are never to be seen but when the people stand in need of their aid."
Source: Baddeley, The Rugged Flanks of Caucasus.
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Last Updated on June 10, 2001 by Lisa and Sylvia.