Newspaper article Evansville Courier & Press (2007-Current)

Birds Highly Skilled in the Fine Art of Anting

Newspaper article Evansville Courier & Press (2007-Current)

Birds Highly Skilled in the Fine Art of Anting

Article excerpt

The caller made me a wee bit envious. She had witnessed something I'd only read about, and I was all ears. Her story went like this

"Someone told me I could keep rabbits from eating my day lilies by scattering mothballs around the plants," she began. "So I did."

She paused and added, "But just now I saw some kind of black bird playing with a mothball, tossing it around and then rubbing it on his feathers.

"It looked so strange," she concluded, and then asked, "Have you ever heard of that?"

Scientists call the behavior "anting," so named because birds, more than 250 documented species worldwide, rub ants or other chemical-carrying substances - both animate and inanimate - on their bodies.

With ants being the most common substance used, they earn the title. Now my caller was reporting her firsthand anting observation.

Here's the scoop: Most ants secrete formic acid for defense. Some birds pluck up these ants in their beaks and rub the little critters over their feathers. Other birds fluff their feathers, squat down on an ant hill, wiggle around to stir up the ants and sit patiently, sunning themselves, while ants swarm over their bodies.

Makes me squirm, but the birds apparently love it.

The question, of course, is why.

Scientists disagree. Some think formic acid acts as an insecticide to help birds rid themselves of ectoparasites such as fleas and mites. Some think birds encourage ants to crawl through their feathers so they eat these external parasites. Still others think birds wipe ants on their feathers to remove the formic acid so they can eat the ants without getting a bellyache.

In addition to ants and mothballs, more than 40 substances have been observed being used by birds.

Of course, birds fight parasites other ways, too. They bathe - in both water and dust. …

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