Walk through tall grass from now until our first frost and a blizzard of grasshoppers - most of them small as the business end of your toothbrush - will rise up and whir away from your approach.

Some of these hoppers, though, are as big as a kid's thumb, and their kicking legs are so well developed they look like meaty drumsticks. It's these larger grasshoppers, especially the black-and-yellow-winged flying variety, that interest my boys. They have inherited their father's sense of seasonal fun, stalking these insects and picking them off the gravel and the grass with their BB guns.

It's a challenge, waiting until the flier lands, then trying to lob a copper BB into its vitals while keeping one eye on the background. I've warned the boys of my own experience with broken windows from ricocheted BBs, and they're keen to avoid the same fate.

It's rare to make a killing shot on these hardy insects. Instead, the boys often retrieve a wounded grasshopper, a ragged BB hole in their wings or thorax. These victims do what every threatened grasshopper does: They exude a nasty brown liquid from their complicated mouths.

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Like every child who has ever held a grasshopper, my boys call this liquid "tobacco spit" and "yucky." That's just what the insect wants, to gross out and repel its persecutor.

This spit is comprised of partially digested forage, usually grass, and it's designed as a last defense against predators: birds, ants, air-gun-wielding boys. Slightly acidic, the spit is thought by some people to be a natural wart remover, but while it might cause a brief stain to your hand or your clothes, the substance is harmless.

Most of us have equated tobacco-spitting grasshoppers with baseball players, but the insects are probably the more impressive athletes. Those well-developed kicking legs are capable of launching a stationary grasshopper several feet. On a human, a comparably muscled leg would allow us to make a standing long jump of more than 100 feet, probably further if we had to evade boys and their BB guns.

Outdoor columnist Andrew McKean can be contacted at amckean@nemontel.net.

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