Our Window on Nature

. . . exploring the world around us

Ants and Birds

Filed under: Bugs — Lowell Christie -- November 20, 2006 @ 9:28 am

AntsDon’t even try to imagine lying down on an ant hill. If you think ants should be avoided, it’s a good thing you’re not a bird. Many species of birds occasionally seek out ants for what may be a beneficial procedure — it is called “anting.” They will plop down on an ant hill and spread their wings. The question is, “Why do they do it?”

Some scientists suggest that the ant’s secretions help kill parasites in the bird’s feathers, an example of Mother Nature’s insecticide. Others think that, since anting occurs more often during the molting season, birds and ants get together because those ant secretions help to sooth the skin irritation caused when emerging feathers break through the skin. (They can’t be certain, however, since birds are also known to rub their feathers with moth balls, cigarette butts, and other odd objects.)

Sometimes the birds, instead of spreading their wings and lying on an ant hill, will pick up individual ants and rub them on their feathers. Perhaps the answer lies in the scientific name for ants, Formicidae. Ants produce an excretion that contains formic acid, and it acts as an insecticide in their nests, protecting them from parasites.

Whatever the reason, if you see a bird consorting with ants without eating them, it may just be performing a type of bird hygiene. Bird watching is much more than identifying birds — solving the puzzles of their behavior can be a constant challenge.


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