MTPR

Birds Of A Feather Flock Together ... To Bathe In Ants?

Jul 7, 2019

Anting is a bizarre form of bird behavior that has often been observed but is not well understood. It typically involves a bird picking up ants and rubbing or jabbing them into the feathers, especially under the wings and tail. The action is so rapid and vigorous that the bird will often knock itself over onto the ground.

Have you ever wondered why birds preen their feathers? I have often watched birds taking dust baths or biting at their feathers and found myself puzzled at the reasons behind this common behavior. I’m sure many children have taken notice of these odd forms of bird hygiene, explaining to their parents that if birds can take a bath by flopping around in the dirt, they should be able to do the same.

Preening is defined as grooming behavior performed by birds in order to maintain the health of feathers and skin. According to scientists, preening occupies much of a bird’s time, along with feeding, sleeping, and tending the nest. In many species, it has also become a part of some rituals of social behavior, such as courtship.

There are many forms of preening. For a bird, the natural world provides many of the amenities that we humans will pay big bucks for in a salon. Where we use facial mud packs, birds take dust baths. While we lie in tanning beds, birds are fond of sunbathing. As we will ease away tension with a massage, birds preen each other’s feathers. But there is one form of bird body care that many have no equivalent in our health spas: anting.

"Anting" is a bizarre form of bird behavior that has often been observed but is not well understood. It typically involves a bird picking up ants and rubbing or jabbing them into the feathers, especially under the wings and tail. This is known as “active” anting. During active anting, the wings are brought forward of the body and arched outward. The action is so rapid and vigorous that the bird will often knock itself over onto the ground. According to one ornithologist, once you have seen a bird “ant” there is no possibility of you ever confusing the action with anything else. In a second form of anting, called “passive” anting, a bird will spread its wings and sit down on an anthill, allowing the ants to crawl through its feathers.

During the first part of the century, leading scientists actually did not believe that anting occurred, dismissing it as too bizarre and impossible. Believe it or not, the person who finally brought anting to the attention of the scientific world was not a famous ornithologist like John James Audubon, but a twelve-year-old boy. Bird anting might still be considered impossible today if it hadn’t been for the persistence of Peter Bradley. He was a schoolboy living in Melbourne, Australia, when he noticed starlings picking up ants and putting them in their feathers. After being ignored by several scientists, he wrote a letter to a famous Australian ornithologist, A. H. Chisolm. Chisolm took Peter’s account seriously, and soon scientists across the world were studying anting.

Since Peter’s discovery, scientists have learned that birds will go through the motions of anting with objects other than ants. Birds have been observed “anting” with other strong-smelling bugs and beetles, various berries, the rinds of lemons and limes, orange juice, vinegar, beer, apple peels, moth balls, smoke, and cigarette butts. Scientists have also learned that anting is common among many different types of birds. In fact, one scientist compiled a list of 148 species known to ant, including several birds commonly found in Montana, such as the magpie, the American Robin, the Great Horned Owl, the Red-winged Blackbird, and the Ruffed Grouse.

There is one important question about anting that scientists have not been able to answer—why do birds ant? Most of the theories focus on strong chemicals, such as formic acid, that are found in ants. Many of the other objects that birds “ant” with also contain powerful chemicals. The most common theory is that these chemicals in the ants (or other objects, such as limes) help rid the birds’ feathers of parasites. Other studies have shown that anting helps birds protect themselves against infections caused by fungus and bacteria. Still other scientists believe that the ants and other objects have a soothing or pleasurable effect on the skin. If the last theory turns out to be true, perhaps anting will become available in our salons after all. I’m not sure that I’ll be the first in line to try it out.
 

"Field Notes" is produced by the Montana Natural History Center.

(Broadcast: "Fieldnotes," 7/7/19 and 7/12/19. You can hear the program on the radio Sundays at 12:55 p.m., Tuesdays at 4:54 p.m., and Fridays at 4:54 p.m., or listen via podcast.)