A whimsical look at life growing up in the small town of Waldron, Arkansas in the 1960s and 1970s, plus occasional observations from the present. Want to start at the very beginning? Click HERE.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

In Search of the World's Meanest Worm

He lies in wait, motionless, attuned to the delicate vibrations made by his prey as they walk along the ground.  Crouched at the top of his burrow, he's poised to pounce.  And as soon as the unsuspecting victim gets close enough, he does just that!  Clutching the hapless prey in vice like pinchers, he retreats, pulling his victim back into his burrow, a victim whose fate is sealed.

OK, technically, he's not a worm.  He's larvae.  The larval stage of a Tiger Beetle, to be exact.  This fierce beast is known by other names in various regions of the country, but in the South, he has the somewhat unfortunate moniker of Chicken Choker.

The barbs on a Chicken Choker's back.
In the carefree days of childhood innocence, we were unaware of the more pejorative definition popular culture has assigned to the term "chicken choker."  (OK, go ahead and google it..)  We just recognized that, given its horrific pinchers and hairy, barbed hump on its back, it would be something that would cause great distress if swallowed by poultry.  So, partly out of obligation to any passing hens, and partly because we had nothing better to do, I and my friends spent quite a bit of time catching these rascals when I was a kid.

By the way, all of the pictures on this post came from here.  It's a good site to visit on those numerous occasions when you need a good bug picture.

To locate a Chicken Choker, you first need to find its burrow.  They are easy to identify; they are perfectly round, about the diameter of a pencil eraser, and usually are in a relatively clear patch of yard (for more efficient grabbing.)  The Chicken Choker, no fool, has already retreated to the bottom of his burrow by the time you locate him.  After all, if he can pick up the vibrations of a little spider walking along the path, it's a dead giveaway when you come clomping through there with your size 8's.  So, instead of being conveniently poised at the top of his burrow, he's way down at the bottom, hiding from you.  So you must go get him.  And how, the uninitiated might ask, would one go about that?  Well, with the correct tools.  And to catch a Chicken Choker, you need only two things:  patience, and a good strong broom straw.

A Chicken Choker poised to strike!
Now, this is the point where many people who have never caught a Chicken Choker begin to doubt.  This step seems so ludicrous that the average City Slicker believes that they are being tricked.  Perhaps a distant memory of waiting in the bushes for an opportunity to sprinkle salt on a snipe's tail feathers emerges, or some other unfortunate prank.  But, as much as this sounds like a prank, it isn't.  To catch a Chicken Choker, one must place a broom straw down into the hole as far as it will go, and wait.  The Chicken Choker, unappreciative of this intrusion, will soon begin to think, "What the heck; this guy's jabbing a broom straw into my head, and it's getting a bit tiresome.  Fortunately, I have these fierce pinchers, so I'll just grab onto the thing and show this guy he's messing with the wrong chump."  Or something like that.  Anyway, the perceptive child can detect when the broom straw begins to move, and can quickly and smoothly pull the straw back up.  The Chicken Choker will undoubtedly still be grabbing the straw with his pinchers, but will be recognizable by the somewhat surprised expression on his face.

Lest you think I'm making all this up, here is a reference in the scientific literature to the technique of "fishing" for Tiger Beetle larvae.  Look on pages 202 and 203.  So see, even smart guys are willing to get a broom straw and go after the fierce beast. 
The much-feared pinchers, up close and personal.

So, once captured, what do you do with the creature?  Most of the kids in my neighborhood subscribed to the "catch and release" school of thought.  We would admire the beast for it's magnificent ugliness, and then put it back in its hole.  This was also perhaps a bit self-serving, because we would often return to catch the monster again on another day.  It seems that Chicken Chokers have such a distaste for having a broom straw jabbed on top of their head that they will, repeatedly, retaliate with their pinchers, knowing full well what the inevitable consequence must be. 

An adult Tiger Beetle
For the entirety of my childhood, I never knew what a Chicken Choker eventually turned into.  I knew it must be some kind of bug, but I never could find out which one.  I suspected June Bugs, but that's not what it was.  I was in college, in fact, when I discovered that they were the larvae of a bug called a Tiger Beetle.  When I saw a picture of a Tiger Beetle, I didn't recall seeing many of them when I was a kid, but they must have been out there.  If you take the time to visit the Tiger Beetle photo page linked above, you'll see that there are apparently a wide variety of color combinations available, similar to visiting a Kia dealership, so neon green isn't necessarily what you'd see every time.  A nice-looking bug, I think we'd all have to admit.

For further reading on kids and bugs, I recommend this entry from one of the world's greatest bloggers, Suldog.  Sully, too, spent quite a bit of time looking for bugs.

 Anyway, I find it reassuring that something as ugly as a Chicken Choker can turn into such a nice looking bug.  Just goes to show, it ain't over 'till it's over.  Here's to good hunting...


  1. Yikes! That is one UGLY bug. Turns into a fairly good-looking beetle, though.

    Thanks for the shout out (and sorry it took me so long to stop by here and see it!)

  2. AnonymousMay 01, 2012

    Hey Man! This is great. I have been catching the occasional "chicken choker" over the years just to amaze a few here and there. Never knew what the developed into either...until today, thanks to this web sight. In this years garden I saw the tell-tale perfect 1/4 in. hole and "went fishing". Haven't caught him yet, and might not, but this time I had to know, just what in the world do those ugly things turn into? At the tender age of 55 I might add. Of all the things I have wonder of and answered for myself,"Why not this". Anyway, now I know.

    Thank You so much,

    Robert Carson

  3. AnonymousJune 19, 2012

    My chicken choker is letting go of the straw when I try to pull him out. Is he too smart or what?

    1. Anonymous, you have about a half-second to get that rascal out before he let's go. One swift yank is all you get. Of course, the only problem is that it means you usually fling the chicken choker on whoever happens to be watching, but that's half the fun...

  4. Had my 4 and 5 year olds out fishing for chokers this morning. Mom is from California and thought I made the whole thing up:) Found this page. Thanks for the proof.

  5. Just introduced my 31 year old daughter and 8 year old grandson to the chicken choker. It only took them about 15 minutes to catch their first one. One was all my daughter wanted to catch, my grandson kept going. He loved it. I loved being able to pass down the simple pleasures of life.

  6. Have any of you ever put two of them together just to see what happened when growing up? Talk about a fierce fight!

  7. I have done this all my life but I use a broken off piece of wild onion. I find that works best. Not too big though just long enough to stick out a few inches from the hole.

  8. I love this blog post, takes me back to my childhood. I was telling my fiance about this one night and she thought I was making it up. My cousins and I used a thick blade of grass to catch them.

  9. ToadlickerApril 29, 2014

    I've caught chicken chokers all during my youth in Arkansas. I, too, wondered what they grew up to be -- now I know. I tried broom straws but a better technique is a slender, straight piece of grass. Their pinchers get caught in the grass pith and you will rarely miss when fishing for chicken chokers.

  10. AnonymousMay 06, 2014

    I grew up during the Pokemon craze, so every day at recess we would go outside and catch the biggest one we could and have our own "Pokemon" battles. We called them camel worms, because of the humps on their backs. I'm so happy you posted this, because I was telling my wife about these and she didn't believe me, and all the pictures of lawn grubs on google images were not near as nasty creatures as I remembered. I'm so happy my childhood isn't a farce.

  11. So is that what I always find in our pool ??? Someone told me it is a chicken choker.

  12. Here in NC we called them doodlebugs. Even though I realize now that that is not the correct name they will always be doodlebugs to me! I have happy memories of my father teaching me to catch them. For some reason I started thinking about "doodlebug hunting" with him and how nice it was that he took the time out of a busy farmer's day to hunt doodlebugs with me. I always wondered what they grew up to be and now I know! Thanks!

    1. Susan thanks for that great comment. We had doodlebugs when I was growing up, but they were what others called rolly-pollies.

    2. My grandpa called them doodlebugs too and we're from VA. He taught me how to catch them. Maybe that's the term for them in this part of the South.