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The food web is one of the most intriguing topics in ecology, with consumers in this chain classified as either primary, secondary, or tertiary.
Birds are an important part of the food chain as they help balance the ecosystem. However, since most birds eat a wide range of different foods, classifying them into a specific category can be difficult.
This brings us to the big question: are birds secondary consumers? Let’s find out…
what is a secondary consumer?
A secondary consumer is any living organism that feeds on organisms that are at the base of the food chain. They are carnivorous in nature, and they are predators to primary consumers, which are predominantly herbivorous animals.
The food chain has three trophic levels; the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels. Primary consumers tend to eat plants or products of plants only while secondary consumers are carnivorous, and they prey on other animals.
Tertiary consumers feed on everything, and they sit at the top of the food chain.
Are birds secondary consumers?
Some birds are secondary consumers while others are either primary or tertiary consumers. The main diet of a bird consists of fruits, nectar, nuts, seeds, and grains. Birds that rely on plant products only are primary consumers. Some birds prefer eating insects, spiders, earthworms, lizards, snakes, fish, and frogs as their primary diet.
Other birds such as ducks, turkey, and gulls eat both plants and animals. They are indiscriminate eaters and their diet includes a variety of different foods, ranging from seeds and grains to rodents and mollusks.
Considering this, classifying birds into a specific level on the food chain can be difficult since most of them feed on both plants and other animals.
The size of the bird will in most cases determine whether it is a primary or secondary consumer. Smaller birds such as larks, sparrows, and cardinals are predominantly primary consumers since their main diet consists of seeds only.
Birds of prey like hawks, falcons, vultures, and eagles are large and they prefer eating small animals like mice, fish, poultry, frogs, snakes, and other smaller birds.
These large birds have very sharp claws and strong beaks to allow them to rip the toughest pieces of meat apart when eating.
Are small birds secondary consumers?
Even though most small birds tend to eat seeds, grains, and berries, we can still categorize some of them as secondary consumers since they feed on smaller primary consumers like worms, insects, bees, and spiders.
As you know by now, any organism that eats a primary consumer is a secondary consumer. Small birds that eat insects, caterpillars, and flies are therefore secondary consumers.
Examples of small birds that fall under this category include woodpeckers, warblers, Carolina chickadee, ruby-throated hummingbird, and the Eastern bluebird.
You may want to read more about Are Birds Invertebrates Or Vertebrates?
What are examples of secondary consumers?
Secondary consumers are carnivorous, meat-eating animals. They eat primary consumers that usually rely on plants for food. Examples of secondary consumers include:
- Big game predators
Large predators like lions, cheetahs, bears, wolves, crocodiles, and cougars are all good examples of secondary consumers. These carnivorous animals feed exclusively on other animals, which might sometimes be bigger and heavier than the predator.
For instance, lions are renowned for attacking and eating larger prey like buffalos, baby elephants, hippopotamuses, and wild beasts.
| Additional reading: Do Lions Eat Elephants?
- Small creatures
Small and medium-sized creatures such as rats, frogs, lizards, raccoons, snakes, and bobcats can also fall under secondary consumers (though they may not entirely be carnivorous). They feed on primary consumers such as insects, caterpillars, and earthworms.
Some even eat other secondary consumers. For instance, some snakes eat frogs and rats, which many people consider to be secondary consumers.
- Fish and aquatic animals
You might not know this, but fish are predominantly carnivorous with very few species regarded as herbivores. Carnivorous fish like sharks, piranhas, sea lions, and seals eat crab, prawns, squids, salmon, and other fish that are smaller than them.
This makes carnivorous fish and aquatic creatures secondary consumers.
- Birds of prey
Birds can either be herbivores, carnivores, or omnivores. Birds of prey like kites, eagles, hawks, and owls are fully carnivorous.
They are considered secondary consumers since they eat other animals like rabbits, rats, fish, reptiles, and carrions. Other birds of prey like vultures eat carcasses. They do not attack live animals.
Are humans secondary consumers?
Yes, and No – most humans are not secondary consumers, but tertiary consumers. This is because they not only feed on primary and secondary consumers, but also eat primary producers (plants). Humans do not produce their own food, but facilitate other organisms/plants to make their own food through natural processes like photosynthesis.
Nonetheless, people who decide to eat plants only (vegans and vegetarians) are primary consumers while humans who feed on meat are secondary consumers.
The majority of humans are tertiary consumers since they eat both plants and animals.
What animals eat secondary consumers
Animals that eat secondary consumers are carnivorous and are often called tertiary consumers or apex predators since they exist at the top-most level of the ecological food chain. They rarely have predators but their bodies will be consumed by scavengers once they die.
Then again, tertiary consumers rely entirely on primary and secondary consumers to survive. Without other organisms below them, tertiary consumers will cease to exist.
Examples of animals that eat secondary consumers include:
- Big cats
Lions, leopards, cheetahs, and tigers are some of the big cats that many consider being tertiary consumers. These animals feed exclusively on meat and they exist at the apex of the food chain.
Check Do Lions Live In the Jungle?
They have various characteristics that make them the ultimate predator to secondary consumers.
Some of these characteristics include strong jaws, sharp teeth, streamlined bodies, great speed, and large claws, among other features.
- Flesh-eating birds
Most birds are primary consumers since they eat grains, seeds, and fruit. However, some birds eat flesh as their main diet, making them tertiary consumers.
A good example of these flesh-eating birds is the secretary bird that hunts and eats snakes, reptiles, and small mammals. Other examples are the eagles, kites, owls, and petrels.
Although these birds are apex predators, their chicks remain vulnerable to other predators.
You might be interested to check Are Birds Warm-Blooded Creatures?
- Marine tertiary consumers
Marine tertiary consumers include saltwater crocodiles, sharks, groupers, barracudas, sea lions, turtles, and jellyfish. These apex predators feed on other fish, frogs, snakes, and birds.
The saltwater crocodile tops the list as the fiercest marine tertiary consumer. It has strong jaws and a powerful tail that can subdue its prey with a single blow.
- Constrictor snakes
Some snakes are tertiary consumers since they only eat meat. These include giant snakes like anacondas, pythons, and boas, which can effortlessly constrict and kills larger animals like cattle, sheep, and wildcats.
They can also kill young crocodiles, big cats, and even humans.
What secondary consumers do humans eat?
Humans are considered super predators since they can eat a wide variety of different foods and organisms that exist in all the other trophic levels. They have more control over the ecosystem since they can control the population of other living organisms.
Besides, humans are more intelligent and they have the weapons and skills to kill other animals within the food chain, including other tertiary consumers.
Here is a list of some of the secondary consumers that humans eat:
Many poultry birds are omnivorous in the sense that they eat plants as well as other animals. For instance, chicken is a favorite dish in most restaurants and dinner tables, and they eat grains, fruits, insects, lizards, and caterpillars, making them secondary consumers.
Pigs are secondary consumers since they eat almost anything, including plants and animals. They do not kill other animals for meat, but eat carcasses and decomposing meat.
From crabs to salmon to groupers, nearly all types of fish that humans eat are carnivorous. These fish feed on smaller fish and marine creatures such as frogs, snakes, snails, shrimps, worms, and insects.
Some fish like sharks and whales are more dangerous predators but are also consumed by humans.
Crocodiles are another good example of secondary consumers that humans eat. Crocodile meat is a great delicacy in most fine-dining restaurants. It tastes like chicken, but it has a fishy flavor.
What is the difference between primary, secondary, and tertiary consumers?
Primary consumers solely eat plants while secondary consumers eat meat. Conversely, tertiary consumers are apex predators that eat secondary consumers.
The ecological food web can be quite confusing given that some primary consumers are also secondary consumers while others are tertiary consumers.
Knowing the difference between these three trophic levels can help you understand how the food chain works. All consumers need each other to survive and balance the ecosystem.